For years, Alberta’s oil sands have been a major driver of the Canadian economy. But with the collapse in global crude oil demand as a result of the pandemic, key players in the region are looking for new opportunities for Alberta’s traditional resources.
Alberta Innovates, the province’s innovation engine, is responsible for the Bitumen Beyond Combustion (BBC) program, which aims to find alternative applications for Alberta’s massive stores of bitumen. The need for diverse applications of bitumen has taken on new urgency with the growing popularity of electric vehicles and their impact on oil demand.
“Diverting bitumen to new materials could reduce emissions, increase economic value, create jobs, diversify the economy, and perhaps even birth new industries,” explains Bryan Helfenbaum, Executive Director of Advanced Hydrocarbons in the Clean Resources division of Alberta Innovates.
Helfenbaum says that there are a number of compelling non-fuel alternatives that can be derived from bitumen, including carbon fibre for structural use, asphalt binder for infrastructure, activated carbon for filtration, and vanadium for batteries.
“Bitumen would be strategically advantaged to provide materials to a growing and more prosperous global population, perhaps ironically playing an important role toward transitioning to a low-carbon future,” he adds.
CEO, Alberta Innovates
Mediaplanet spoke with Laura Kilcrease, CEO of Alberta Innovates, to learn about some of the exciting projects Alberta Innovates is undertaking to advance the cleantech sector in the province.
How does Alberta Innovates progress cleantech?
Our Clean Technology program invests in projects that reduce environmental impacts, support Alberta’s energy transition, and generate jobs in the cleantech economy.
What kind of projects?
The BBC is one, of course. Smart grids are another — the Alberta Smart Grid Consortium brings together industry players to accelerate the adoption of grid optimization technology. Biofuel is another important area. Our current project with the City of Edmonton is converting 100,000 tonnes of municipal solid waste into 40 million litres of biofuel per year. We’re also investing in hydrogen, as the Greater Edmonton area is poised to become Canada’s first hydrogen node.
What does the future hold for Alberta’s oil sands?
Alberta’s oil and gas industry is one of the largest markets for clean technology in Canada and is perfectly poised to lead energy transformation. We must continue to take advantage of the natural resources, highly-skilled workforce, and existing infrastructure to drive this transformation.
Executive Director of Advanced Hydrocarbons in the Clean Resources Division, Alberta Innovates
Mediaplanet had a virtual chat with Bryan Helfenbaum, Executive Director of Advanced Hydrocarbons in the Clean Resources Division at Alberta Innovates, to get his insight on the different potential uses for bitumen and what this means for the future.
Why is there urgency to find alternative applications for bitumen?
Ninety percent of bitumen gets processed into fuel, such as gasoline and diesel. However, bitumen is not an ideal feedstock for fuels, so its value is lower compared to lighter oils. Also, 80 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions associated with bitumen are generated when these fuels are consumed.
What’s the importance of carbon fibre and other advanced materials?
Carbon fibre is often referred to as the material of the future, given its strength and non-corrosive properties. However, there’s a cost barrier to its current proliferation. Research indicates that an overall 50 percent drop in the price of carbon fibre could lead to 10 times more demand, with applications ranging from making vehicles lighter, to constructing longer-lasting buildings and infrastructure. The use of bitumen could reduce the feedstock cost by 90 percent compared to the traditional source.
How far are we from using bitumen for alternative commercial applications?
It depends on the application. Carbon fibre represents a lucrative opportunity, but the scale and quality of the fibre need further advancement. Alberta Innovates and the Clean Resource Innovation Network recently launched Phase 2 of the Carbon Fibre Grand Challenge to catalyze this, and so I anticipate that commercial projects could begin within five to eight years.