Researchers look for new uses for bitumen to continue driving oilsands economy

Alberta Innovates released a paper and is funding a competition to find new ways to use bitumen. One of which is creating carbon fiber, a material stronger and lighter than steel.

Bitumen can be used to make carbon fibre

Researchers in Alberta are looking for new uses for bitumen, such as carbon fibre. (Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press)

With Alberta's oilpatch under intense environmental scrutiny, a provincial research agency is looking at new opportunities for the oilsands to continue contributing to the Canadian economy.

Alberta's natural resources, bitumen included, can contribute to the Canadian economy during the energy transition and be part of a net-zero emissions solution over the long term, according to Alberta Innovates.

A white paper, Bitumen Beyond Combustion, examines other uses for bitumen that would not require burning it as fuel.

"The vast majority of the bitumen that's produced in Alberta ultimately ends up as fuels like gasoline, diesel, jet fuel, etc," Bryan Helfenbaum, one of the authors of the paper, told CBC's Edmonton AM on Wednesday.

"The concept here is to turn that idea on its head and instead of turning bitumen into fuels which are combusted, to instead look at turning bitumen into materials."

Fossil fuels are responsible for 75 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Recently, six oilsands producers representing 95 per cent of all bitumen production in Canada, committed to the goal of achieving net-zero emissions by 2050.

Helfenbaum said while the companies transition away from oil, they are looking for other uses of bitumen to continue driving the oilsands economy.

One promising possibility is carbon fibre which is 10 times stronger than steel but five times lighter.

Carbon fibre can be created from bitumen and, once mass-produced, can be used to make vehicles lighter and concrete last longer, Helfenbaum said.

"So bitumen could really be a key feedstock toward driving these materials that have a much longer life and much more utility than current ones," he said. 

Carbon fibre is currently made from a synthetic resin called polyacrylonitrile which is expensive and difficult to produce. The paper looks into finding cheaper ways of making carbon fibre from bitumen.

Helfenbaum said the research — and potential jobs from it — require a lot of funding.

That's where the Carbon Fibre Grant Challenge, a $15-million three-phase competition, can help researchers get their  projects off the ground.

On Tuesday, 12 projects were selected to share $5.27 million for Phase 2. One of them is University of Alberta adjunct professor Kevin Hodder's research project converting asphaltenes into carbon fibre. 

Asphaltenes are a waste product of crude oil. Because of their make up, asphaltenes can't be directly made into carbon fibre as the end product can be brittle.

"So we pre-processed it with electrolysis and thermal energy and created something that is sort of more like a hot glue gun," Hodder said. "You put in and heat it up and it kind of expands and it's drawn out into a fibre instead of just crumbling apart." 

In the lab they can successfully create a couple grams of fibre but making it a larger scale is a challenge, Hodder said. Although their technique is favourable for mass-production they still require funding to build the right machinery.

"We hope to be ready for Phase 3, which is going to be basically our carbon fibre centre in the market, hopefully by the end of the next year," he said.


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