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Transporting bitumen—a petroleum-based hydrocarbon used for building and construction needs—has always been somewhat risky. There is the possibility of spills, fires and other accidents. In recent years, there have been accidents where bitumen caused fire and hazardous disasters. Unfortunately, there was no direct way of transporting it. It was either via using a pipeline or using heated cars on railroads. However, the idea of converting bitumen into solid pellets—dubbed as, bitumen pellets —has recently come to light, creating a bold impact in solving the occurrence of oil spills.

The bold idea requires it to be degraded and then converted to pellets right at the wellhead, creating a significantly safer method that lessens the risk of harmful oil spills. This process also separates a light oil diluent and could then be transported safely by truck or by train. Once the bitumen pellets have been safely shipped to the site, adding the diluent reconstitutes the crude oil. Alternatively, the pellets can be used as-is, and the diluent can also be used or sold separately.

Bitumen Pellets — Refining Bitumen for Safe Transport

Bitumen pellets were developed by Ian Gates and Jackie Wang at the University of Calgary’s Schulich School of Engineering. Gates is a professor at the university who was working on how to upgrade bitumen. Instead, he along with Jackie Wang, who is an engineer, found a way to degrade bitumen. The process uses heat to remove lighter elements of bitumen which degrades the outer layer of the pellet.

Earlier this year, the Canadian National Railway demonstrated a technology in which bitumen is converted to a solid called CanaPux. Its process turns bitumen into a semi-solid, around the size and shape of a hockey puck. The difference between the method patented by the Canadian National Railway and that of Gates and Wang’s is that CanaPux requires a polymer to encase the bitumen. This detail requires a complex process in which the polymer is applied prior to transport, and then it has to be removed once it is delivered.

a photo of oil pipelines and bitumen pellets
With bitumen pellets, any accident or spill is indeed easier to isolate and clean.

Bitumen is a thick gooey mass that has to be heated during transport to keep it from hardening. This case means that the pipeline has to be heated all the way from the wellhead to the market. The same goes for trucks, where their containers should also be heated. It goes without saying that it takes a lot of energy just to transport the energy source. Such a fact makes the new technology of making bitumen pellets revolutionary in many ways. Trucks, pipes and containers no longer needed to be heated. And spills of pellets are much easier to clean up than sticky crude after an accident. In the same manner, when a ship containing bitumen has a leak, the spilled bitumen can lead to an environmental disaster as it does not float but instead sinks to the bottom of the sea. With bitumen pellets, any accident or spill is indeed easier to isolate and clean.

Bitumen: Essential to Road Paving

Bitumen pellets are stable and can be handled at room temperature. The pellets have a liquid core and a viscous outer layer. An injection of air into the pellet helps keep them afloat on water. If spilled, these bitumen pellets can be picked, shoveled or moved in any other way to get them into a rail container or a truck transport. For road-paving purposes, the bitumen pellets do not need to be reconstituted at all as they will work just fine in this form. Notably, a great advantage of solid bitumen transport is that idle coal cars can be used to ship them. These coal cars have not been in use because the demand for coal has significantly decreased. There are a lot of these coal transport cars still available to use in transporting bitumen pellets.

Hopefully, in the end, these bold ideas will make bitumen use and transport much easier and less hazardous to both workers and the environment.

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