A Calgary engineer thinks an invention he stumbled upon in the laboratory could transform the way Alberta gets its heavy oil to market.

Ian Gates was researching ways to upgrade bitumen when he and his team accidentally found a way to degrade it, making it even more viscous — which, in turn, led to a discovery that they could envelope the oil in self-sealing pellets, with a liquid core and super-viscous skin.

These tough little balls of bitumen could be a pipeline-free way of getting Alberta oil to markets cheaply, sustainably and with less risk of environmental harm, said a release from the University of Calgary's Schulich School of Engineering, where Gates is a professor.

"We've taken heavy oil, or bitumen, either one, and we've discovered a process to convert them rapidly and reproducibly into pellets," Gates told CBC News.

Bitumen balls could be a pipeline-free way to transport Alberta oil0:30

"With this, we can put it in a standard rail car. It can go to any port where a rail car goes, which is an immense number of them, to get product out from North America."

Gates says the pellets could be put in the thousands of rail cars built for coal that are now sitting idle.

"Pipelines, they have their role. I don't think it will replace pipelines. This just offers one more mode of transport," Gates told the Calgary Eyeopener.

"But certainly you could see it displacing some of the heated railcars."

Gates and his team of researchers have developed the technology to the point where they can make pellets of various sizes right at the wellhead, using about the same amount of energy as it takes to add diluent to the bitumen to liquefy it for shipping via pipelines.

"Think Advil," Gates said. "You have the chemical material ... we're then exposing that material, on the outside, to a set of heat, pressure conditions, that then yield a asphaltine-rich coating. So, really just a coating that bounds the inner material."

ian gates

Ian Gates at the University of Calgary’s Schulich School of Engineering says his bitumen pellet invention will make it cheaper and safer to transport Alberta's energy products by rail. (CBC)

Environmentally safe

The pellets are tough and can be safely transported by rail or truck without worrying about spills.

Because of a gas bubble injected inside each pellet, they are also buoyant, Gates says.

"They're nice and hardy. If you put them in water, they'll sit like that for a very long time," Gates said.

"It's a safe product for transport."

The research and the effort to translate it into a commercially viable idea was supported by the U of C's Innovate Calgary, the school's technology and business-incubation centre.

"We were able [to] connect with potential industry partners and customers who might help advance the technology to a field trial, and ultimately, a full scale solution," said Stace Wills, vice-president of energy at Innovate Calgary.

By November, the fully automated technology will be producing barrels of the tiny balls, the school says.

Over the next year we'll then scale that up to a several-hundred-barrel per day unit," Gates said.

He says there are several companies interested in moving the newly patented invention forward.

Once the pellets are transported, they can be reconstituted back to bitumen — by re-mixing them with a light oil which is produced as a side product of the original process — and then upgraded in the regular way.

"So you'd have to transport the light oil with the solids if you want to reconstitute the heavy oil," Gates said.

Or, the pellets can be used as they are.

The balls are an ideal feed stock for road paving, without the need to upgrade the product any further, Gates says.

"In that case, all you do is sell the solid to those markets," he said.


With files from the Calgary Eyeopener

With files from Rebecca Kelly