A Canadian engineer and his team accidentally discovered a way that could make transporting heavy Alberta crude by rail much more safely. In fact, the bitumen pellets that Ian Gates and his co-workers came up with could make oil transportation safer than pipelines.
Gates, a professor at the University of Calgary’s Schulich School of Engineering, and his team were working on ways to make the bitumen extracted from the oil sands of Alberta less viscous, but instead they inadvertently found a way to make it more viscous, CBC reports. Then they found out that this highly viscous matter could be turned into self-sealed pellets with a highly viscous coating and a liquid core.
The method, which involves applying heat and pressure to the bitumen, is cheap – as cheap, the team says, as adding diluent to the bitumen to make it liquid enough to be transportable via pipelines. The heat and pressure result in the formation of a tough coating rich in asphaltene that envelops the liquid core.
The conversion can be applied at the wellhead, with the pellets then transported to export destinations by regular rail cars – the same ones used to transport coal. They could also be transported by trucks. After they reach their destination, the pellets can either be reconstituted into bitumen or used as-is, for road paving for example, Gates says.
The pellet-production technology is fully automated, and within the next couple of months it will be able to produce several barrels of bitumen pellets daily. Within a year, Gates says, the production capacity could reach several hundred barrels per day.
There are already energy companies interested in the commercialization of the technology.
Alberta is Canada’s biggest oil producer and home of the world’s third-largest oil reserves, after Venezuela and Saudi Arabia. Reserves as of last year were estimated at 165.4 billion barrels. Oil output in 2016 averaged 2.5 million bpd.
By Irina Slav for Oilprice.com
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Irina is a writer for the U.S.-based Divergente LLC consulting firm with over a decade of experience writing on the oil and gas industry.