A new technology has the potential to transform the transportation of tars sands oil. Right now, the already thick and slow-flowing oil, known as bitumen, has to be diluted with a super-light petroleum product, usually natural gas condensate, in order for it to flow through a pipeline or into a rail tank car.
However, scientists at the University of Calgary’s Schulich School of Engineering inadvertently found a way to make tar sands oil even more viscous, turning it into “self-sealing pellets” that could potentially simplify its transport.
“We’ve taken heavy oil, or bitumen, either one, and we’ve discovered a process to convert them rapidly and reproducibly into pellets,” Ian Gates, the professor leading the research, told CBC News in September 2017.
Based on the initial description of this product, it appears that it could alleviate many of the risks involved with moving tar sands oil by rail. The research teams says this product floats in water, does not pose a fire and explosion risk like the diluted bitumen currently moved in rail tank cars, and would eliminate air quality issues related to the volatile components of diluted bitumen.
If true, this technology would appear to reduce potential risks to people and the environment, in comparision with moving diluted bitumen by rail or in pipelines.
Gates also suggests that the solidified bitumen can be moved in the type of open rail cars used for coal. That would be welcome news to railroads, which have been losing business transporting coal as demand has dwindled. Gates did not respond to multiple requests for comment on this article.
Canadian National Working to Commercialize Similar Technology
Meanwhile, similar research and development has been happening not within the Canadian oil industry, but instead, a Canadian railroad, which has patented another method of solidifying tar sands for transport.
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