Overview

Ambition: Convert bitumen constituents into high-value non-fuel products, as an outstanding example of future-fit hydrocarbons, bolstering Canada as a world-leading developer of energy technologies that also provides valuable 21st century materials for a growing and prosperous planet.

With 80% of lifecycle greenhouse gases associated with petroleum due to combustion (end-use), this initiative represents an opportunity to dramatically reduce emissions by sequestering the carbon into solid materials like carbon fibre and asphalt. In addition, these products have the potential for further downstream emissions reduction (e.g. lighter vehicles, longer-lasting structures, etc). BBC has game-changer potential in terms of economic value add, GHG emissions reduction, employment, resource value retention, and economic diversification.

Alternative end-uses for bitumen have open-ended potential regarding products and processes, letting chemistry and markets define the opportunity. Current emphasis is on products like carbon fibre, asphalt binder, activated carbon, and vanadium while future platforms could include carbon nanotubes, graphene, and compostable polymers. 

The producers of bitumen have strong collaboration vehicles in place (e.g. COSIA, PTAC) but the BBC opportunity spans a much broader ecosystem including manufacturing and end users of BBC products (e.g. automotive, steel, concrete, wood product industries). This larger ecosystem remains ill-defined and with limited vehicles currently; there are still to-be identified products and end users.

Challenges

BBC represents collaboration among diverse stakeholders such as bitumen producers (e.g. Suncor, CNRL), technology developers (e.g. U of C, U of A), carbon fibre manufacturers (e.g. SGL Carbon, Mitsubishi), and end users (e.g. Magna, Lafarge, BASF). While the logistics remain an open question, a solution could involve manufacturing an intermediate product in Alberta and then shipping via pipeline to Ontario for further manufacturing and implementation into automotive plants, offering a story on national collaboration.

Other notable challenges include:

  • Scientific fundamentals
  • Impact of impurities (e.g. sulphur, metals)
  • Large-scale production
  • Sustainable funding
  • Economics, energy requirements, and GHGs
  • Industry continues to focus on combustion products, given the assets in place and existing supply chains and know-how

Initiative Status

Alberta Innovates launched its Carbon Fibre Grand Challenge on Jan 15, 2020: https://albertainnovates.ca/programs/carbon-fibre-grand-challenge/

The EFL featured this initiative as one of the Five Big Ideas for Alberta’s Economic Recovery. View the recording of the virtual conference here.