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 the bitumen caused fire and hazardous disasters. Unfortunately, there was no direct way of transporting it – it was either via pipeline or using heated cars on railroads. However, the idea of converting it into solid pellets has recently come to light, creating a bold impact in preventing oil spills.

With pellets, any accident or spill is much easier to clean up.

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, as well as pellet-sized bitumen, and could then be transported safely by truck or by train.

Once the bitumen has 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.

Refining Bitumen for Safe Transport

The 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 working on how to upgrade bitumen. Instead, he along with Jackie Wang, 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.

Oil pipeline and bitumen pellets.

Earlier this year, the Canadian National Railway demonstrated a technology in which bitumen is converted to a solid called CanaPux. Their 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, is that CanaPux requires a polymer to encase the bitumen. This requires a complex process in which the polymer is applied prior to transport, and then it has removed once it is delivered.

Bitumen is a thick gooey mass which has to be heated during transport to keep it from hardening. This 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. And that takes a lot of energy, just to transport the energy source.

This makes the new technology revolutionary in many ways. Trucks, pipes and containers no longer need to be heated. And spills of pellets are much easier to clean up after an accident than sticky crude. In the same manner, when a ship containing bitumen has a leak, the bitumen can be an environmental disaster as it does not float, but instead sinks to the bottom of the sea. With pellets, any accident or spill is much easier to isolate and clean.

Bitumen Essential to Road Paving

The bitumen pellet is stable and can be handled at room temperature. The pellets have liquid cores, a viscous outer layer, and an injection of air into the pellet helps keep them afloat on water. If spilled, these 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 balls do not need to be reconstituted at all as they will work just fine in this form.

A great advantage of solid bitumen transport is that idle coal cars can be used to ship them. These 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. Hopefully, these bold ideas make bitumen use and transport much easier and less hazardous to both workers and the environment.