This Engineer Might Have Accidentally Changed How We Transport Crude Oil Forever

The discovery of bitumen pellets could completely alter how oil companies transport their product.
Danielle  De La Bastide
Bitumen balls can range from golfball- to pill-size.Innovate Calgary

Of all the incredible discoveries made by engineers on purpose, one just mistakenly discovered something that could change the oil industry forever.

A professor at the University of Calgary’s Schulich School of Engineering was busy researching how to upgrade bitumen - the viscous, black blend of hydrocarbons left as a residue after petroleum distillation – during this process, he mistakenly degraded the thick substance and somehow created a viscous result that he could transport in self-sealing pellets.

This Engineer Might Have Accidentally Changed How We Transport Crude Oil Forever
Source: Riley Brandt/University of Calgary

The pellets themselves have liquid centers inside viscous membranes; a gas bubble is also injected into the middle of each ball which gives them a buoyancy. They can also be made into various sizes right at the wellhead, using the same amount of energy needed to add diluent to bitumen to liquefy it for pipeline transport.

"With this, we can put it in a standard rail car. It can go to any port where a rail car goes, which is an immense number of them, to get product out from North America,” Gates told CBC News in Alberta, Canada.

When these pellets eventually get to their destination, they can be rendered back to bitumen using a light oil produced as a side-product during the pellet’s creation process. It’s a sustainable and much cheaper way to transport oil to their required markets.

"They're nice and hardy. If you put them in water, they'll sit like that for a very long time; it's a safe product for transport.” Gates said to CBC News.

Though he hopes his pellets can be transported by old, idle railcars formerly used for coal. Gates doesn’t think his creation is the end of pipelines altogether.

"Pipelines, they have their role. I don't think it will replace pipelines. This just offers one more mode of transport," Gates told the Calgary Eyeopener. “But certainly you could see it displacing some of the heated railcars."

These pellets are an important discovery due to the problem of crude oil spills. According to Futurism, “More crude oil was spilled in American rail incidents in 2013 than in the previous 40 years, and in the last ten years, there have been 62 crude oil spills from trains.”

Gates’ creation could greatly lower the risk of spills and in doing so, reduce the cost of clean-up.

This Engineer Might Have Accidentally Changed How We Transport Crude Oil Forever
Source: Pixabay

He’s already gained interest from numerous members of the North American energy sector. Therefore, Gates’ patented technology created at the university is being aided commercially by the U of C's Innovate Calgary, the school's technology and business-incubation center.

"We were able [to] connect with potential industry partners and customers who might help advance the technology to a field trial, and ultimately, a full-scale solution," said Stace Wills, vice-president of energy at Innovate Calgary.

By November the pellets will be produced by the barrel, and over the next year Gates aims to produce up to several hundred barrels per day.

The pellets also have dual functions; they are also ideal feed-stock for paving roads as is, without the need to turn them back into bitumen.

"In that case, all you do is sell the solid to those markets," said Gates.

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