Bitumen tar balls could move in idle railcars, trucks built for coal to transform movement of heavy oil

A Calgary engineer thinks an invention he stumbled upon in the laboratory could transform the way Alberta gets its heavy oil to market.

Ian Gates was researching ways to upgrade bitumen when he and his team accidentally found a way to degrade it, making it even more viscous — which, in turn, led to a discovery that they could envelope the oil in self-sealing pellets, with a liquid core and super-viscous skin.

* The pellets are tough and can be safely transported by rail or truck without worrying about spills.
* Because of a gas bubble injected inside each pellet, they are also buoyant

These tough little balls of bitumen could be a pipeline-free way of getting Alberta oil to markets cheaply, sustainably and with less risk of environmental harm, said a release from the University of Calgary’s Schulich School of Engineering, where Gates is a professor.

“We’ve taken heavy oil, or bitumen, either one, and we’ve discovered a process to convert them rapidly and reproducibly into pellets,” Gates told CBC News.

Solid oil

Once the pellets are transported, they can be reconstituted back to bitumen — by re-mixing them with a light oil which is produced as a side product of the original process — and then upgraded in the regular way.

“So you’d have to transport the light oil with the solids if you want to reconstitute the heavy oil,” Gates said.

Or, the pellets can be used as they are.

The balls are an ideal feed stock for road paving, without the need to upgrade the product any further, Gates says.