At the University of Calgary’s Schulich School of Engineering, Professor Ian Gates was researching on Bitumen, the thick, viscous fluid residue left after the fractional distillation of petroleum when he managed to have degraded it further down. The resultant product was way more viscous; something Gates found out could be ‘self-packaged’ into hard pellets of itself.
These pellets consist of liquid centers inside super-viscous membranes, and a gas bubble injected at the center of each pellet makes them buoyant as well, thereby preventing further consequences arising from oil-spills. Gates’ team can make these pellets in different sizes using about the same amount of energy required to render the bitumen liquid for pipeline transportation.
The pellet production itself produces another lighter oil like product which when added to the pellet, can be used to reconstitute it back into a usable fluid. For processes like road-paving however, you can sell the solid itself, said Gates to the Calgary Eyeopener.
Petroleum transportation has always been the darker side of its many advantages and uses. Till now it has been done by either rail or pipelines. The latter has been the more common option till now. But besides being the cheaper alternative, pipelines offer considerable risks: 1. requires large monetary and human investment and 2. They are far riskier to the environment. The Dakota Access Pipeline was leaking oil even in its trial stages before it was fully functional leading to massive controversy.
While transporting oil via rail is somewhat safer, the process still isn’t foolproof. More crude oil was spilled in American rail incidents in 2013 than in the previous 40 years, and in the last 10 years, there have been 62 crude oil spills from trains.
The hard pellets, however, could theoretically prevent a lot of these mishaps.
The pellets can now easily be transported by rail, meant for coal. Even if they spill into the water, they will cause minimal damage; Because of the buoyant air bubble at the core.
“With this, we can put [oil] 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 the product out from North America,” said Gates. “It’s a safe product for transport.”
The technology to produce the balls will be fully automated and in operation by November, but Gates doesn’t expect his invention to fully supplant pipelines in the transportation of oil. “Pipelines, they have their role. I don’t think it will replace pipelines. This just offers one more mode of transport,” he noted.
According to Stace Wills, vice-president of energy at the University of Calgary’s Innovate Calgary: “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.”
This might just be the next big thing in the history of energy and energy associated with it.