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Solid bitumen ‘pucks’ could help fix Canada’s oil transport problems

Cold refined bitumen (Wikimedia Commons/Burger)
Cold refined bitumen (Wikimedia Commons/Burger)

Canada’s largest rail company, Canada National Rail, has developed a product called CanaPux: solid, dry pucks of bitumen that float, do not easily dissolve and do not combust easily. A researcher at the University of Calgary has also developed a way to form solid bitumen. Both hope that their processes will increase the viability of expanding oil transport via rail.

Canada’s oil producers have been suffering over a lack of infrastructure to get their product to market recently and CN Rail has previously had trouble transporting oil by rail, including a fire following the derailment of a train carrying crude oil.

These solid pucks are attractive when compared to the current method to transport bitumen, which uses a flammable diluent to make the product thin enough to be pumped through pipelines or into rail cars. Janet Drysdale, vice-president of corporate development at CN Rail told The Globe and Mail that the company plans to develop the pucks into a stackable brick that is more conducive to mass transport.

CN Rail’s CanaPux uses bitumen covered in and blended with a polymer to form solid pucks. When the bitumen is extracted, the polymer can then be recycled to produce more pucks or sold. To transport the pucks, a rail company would use open topped gondola railcars, similar to how coal is moved. The initial patent for CanaPux was filed in February 2017.

If pucks were spilled, CN Rail says that the clean-up would be simple: pick up the spillage by hand or with equipment like booms, nets or vacuums.

Currently, lighter forms of oil cannot be made into solid bricks. The company also doesn’t see the system as an alternative to pipelines, instead saying that “solid pellets are a niche market that we believe will be of particular interest to companies that are not pipeline connected.”

In December, CN Rail announced that it was partnering with Toyo Engineering to help bring the system to market. The company is also working with InnoTech Alberta, a provincially-funded agency focused on technological development and scaling products to a commercial level.

Janet Drysdale, vice-president of corporate development & sustainability at CN Rail said in a statement: "This partnership with Toyo continues our development of a new supply chain that has the potential to unlock offshore markets for Canada's energy producers."

But Professor Ian Gates, a researcher at the University of Calgary says he has developed an even better method to produce solid bitumen, one that doesn’t require polymers and has all of the same safety benefits.

In a press release announcing the discovery in September 2017, the professor said that he found his way to solidify bitumen by accident: ““We were trying to upgrade bitumen and learned how to degrade it instead… We put it on the shelf for quite a while, because who would want bitumen pellets. It turns out there’s a huge market for this stuff.” These pellets can be upgraded to liquid bitumen as necessary.

“We convert it to a solid phase skin with bitumen inside, and that we can then ship worldwide in standard railcars,” said Gates. “With the coal industry diminishing, there are thousands of these railcars built for coal that are now sitting idle. When you look at those railcars as very cheap transport, that’s a few hundred thousand barrels a day that could be transported, using solid-phase bitumen, to markets throughout the planet.”

Cold refined bitumen (Wikimedia Commons/Burger)