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Wasteless Processing: Opportunity to Use Low-Cost Petroleum By-Products for Value-Added Purposes

The impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic disrupting demand for transportation fuels and the Russia-Saudi Arabia-led oil price war made 2020 an extremely volatile year for the petroleum industry.

In 2021, following growing optimism for resolving pandemic-related issues, global leaders have quickly moved to adopt policies to support the “green recovery”. The green recovery is a package of environmental, regulatory, and fiscal reforms aimed at restoring prosperity after the COVID-19 pandemic in a low-carbon context. This includes a move towards net-zero emissions within the next generation.

Underpinned by growing public concern over the impacts of climate change, policy makers now feel they have the political capital to make sweeping changes. A recent poll surveying citizens in the U.K., Canada, Germany, Italy, Brazil, France, Poland, and the United States found that an overwhelming majority recognize the climate crisis as an emergency that calls for immediate action. Amongst the public outcry, climate advocates have demanded politicians table policy to cut carbon emissions, while global institutional investors have scaled back their investments in highly carbon-intensive industries.

Source: The Guardian

In Canada, the Trudeau government announced a progressive carbon tax policy to increase the cost of carbon emissions to $170/tonne by 2030. In the United States, President Biden canceled the Keystone XL pipeline expansion permit by executive action, and then placed a moratorium on new oil and gas drilling on federal lands.

A Vulnerable Petroleum Sector

Extensive policy changes with a green recovery mandate will have widespread implications for the energy sector. Canada’s energy sector accounts for over 10% of its nominal gross domestic product, and that figure increases to 16% for Alberta. In Alberta, oilsands production accounts for 85% of its total crude oil production, of which, approximately 60% is sold in the form of raw unprocessed bitumen.

The Canadian oil patch prides itself on setting the gold standard for clean and responsible resource development. It is true that petroleum-related companies operating under Canadian regulatory frameworks are subject to the most stringent environmental and reporting standards. Nonetheless, in a study that compared the full lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions of Canadian-sourced crudes against other benchmarks, Canadian crudes ranked highly on emissions intensity.

Source: IHS CERA

The reason for the high carbon intensity of Canadian crudes is primarily a matter of chemistry. The majority of the crude production from Canada is classified as ‘heavy’ or ‘ultra heavy’; the makeup of the petroleum consists of relatively larger quantities of large, complex structured, and carbon-intensive components. This is apparent when analyzing a crude’s boiling point curve distribution – the boiling point increases when larger, more carbon-intensive constituents are present.

About one-fifth of a barrel of oilsands bitumen consists of asphaltenes. Asphaltenes are stable, natural, carbonaceous solids (85-87% carbon) found in petroleum, consisting of condensed aromatic hydrocarbons rich with sulfur, nitrogen, and metals. When processed at high temperatures, asphaltenes destabilize and decompose into coke, gas, and a small amount of liquid petroleum product.

Asphaltenes are carbon-rich components found in large quantities in Canadian bitumen

Asphaltenes present significant environmental and economic problems for energy stakeholders: burning them is as carbon-intensive as burning coal, and refiners use expensive and inefficient processes to transform these materials into combustion fuels as a means of waste management. In the context of a green economy that places a price on carbon, continuing to handle asphaltenes under the status quo will ultimately place Canadian energy stakeholders in a disadvantaged and uncompetitive position.

Wasteless Processing: Value-Added Opportunities

Well Resources is committed to developing practical solutions for wasteless processing by actively investigating and identifying value-added uses for asphaltene-derived products.

The use of asphaltene-derived products for novel non-combustion purposes is of particular interest as it presents an immediate opportunity to incrementally lower the overall carbon intensity and improve the quality of heavy oils. Moreover, economic diversification can be achieved by using asphaltenes in cross-sector applications, such as new materials and environmental remediation.

Case Study 1: Waterproof Concrete Additive

Concrete is widely used in the construction of buildings and structures. By design, concrete is a porous water-wet material that allows water to pass through its matrix by hydrostatic pressure, water vapor gradients, or capillary action. Over time, water can damage the integrity of concrete by (but not limited to) the following mechanisms:

  • Concretes may be susceptible to attacks from dry chemical agents when wetted

  • Internal cracks may form during freeze-thaw cycles of permeated water

  • Water infiltration may corrode or weaken the reinforcing materials

To preserve the long-term integrity of concrete, waterproofing is essential and is typically applied on the positive hydrostatic pressure side of a structure. Various waterproofing techniques exist, such as torch-on membrane waterproofing (polymer or asphalt), liquid membrane waterproofing (primer), sheet membranes (bonded adhesives), or applying epoxies.

Well Resources has developed an asphaltene-based concrete additive that makes concrete matrix an oil-wet material. The advantage of the oil-wet matrix is that the concrete becomes inherently waterproof. Existing waterproofing techniques by which coating materials adhere to the surface of concrete are susceptive to wear and tear, weathering, and require periodic maintenance.

Asphaltene additives add waterproofing properties to concrete

Commentary: inherently waterproof cement is also mold-preventative. In addition to causing structural damage, molds can cause serious human health issues and ruin the appearance of buildings.

Case Study 2: Tailings Pond Management

A large volume of contaminated tailings water is produced from mined oilsands operations and is stored in tailings ponds. Tailings ponds, which are estimated to have average depths of 40 m, present significant environmental liabilities and continue to grow alongside mined oilsands developments. From 1985 to 2016, government data showed that the aerial surface area of Alberta tailings ponds grew from 28 km² to 257 km².

The viability of large-scale waste-water treatment projects has been driven by economic factors. In mid-2019, a Canadian oilsands operator announced a full-scale demonstration project to explore the use of petroleum coke to treat oilsands tailings water. Video of the successful project was made available in late 2020.

Commentary: asphaltenes have an affinity to adsorb organic matters including naphthenic acids and contaminants in polluted water. While it may be beneficial to utilize asphaltene-derived products near the primary production site to treat contaminated tailings, asphaltenes may also be used for wastewater treatment in other industries.

Case Study 3: Agricultural Soil Remediation

Contamination on agricultural lands can be caused by the use of farm chemicals, such as herbicides, fungicides, insecticides, and pesticides, as well as fertilizers. Left untreated, these chemicals can result in considerable and long-term environmental damage while also impacting the yield and quality of crops.

Traditional soil remediation strategies such as stabilization and solidification, soil washing, thermal desorption, solvent extraction, and bioremediation are typically costly to implement, particularly when large areas of land and large volumes of soil must be decontaminated. As a result, most or all of contaminated agricultural lands remain untreated as the cost of treatment is prohibitive.

Asphaltenes can be used as a natural treatment method for decontaminating soil. When produced locally and in bulk quantities, asphaltenes are a low-cost physical adsorption medium for organic contaminants. Asphaltenes can be combined with soil matrix to passively adsorb contaminants in-situ or serve as a measure for preventing contaminants from percolating into the groundwater system.

Plant matter growing in an asphaltene-soil matrix

Commentary: asphaltenes are benign and non-leachable, and thereby have minimal residual impacts when used as a soil treatment method.

Case Study 4: Low-Cost Carbon Fibre

Carbon fibre is a strong, light-weight, and non-corrosive material that is considered a next-generation construction material. Since its invention nearly 70 years ago, commercial carbon fibre uses have been limited to high-end applications due to the high cost of feed preparation. By using asphaltenes as a low-cost feedstock, a variety of carbon fibres with various physical properties can be produced to meet the demand for a wide consumer market.

Carbon fibres produced from asphaltenes

Disclaimer: certain non-combustion uses for asphaltenes described in this article may still be under product development.

About Well Resources

Well Resources is an Alberta-based technology company with local offices in Calgary and Edmonton. Its areas of focus are in the energy and life sciences sectors, where Well Resources develops and licenses green technologies that promote effective resource utilization.


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Well Insights?

Well Insights is a series that addresses subjects relevant to civil society, governments, and industry. The discussions focus on rethinking the way we approach difficult issues and providing transformative solutions as they all relate to the topic of effective resource utilization.

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