By Alex Binkley
Melius Energy of Calgary has partnered with BitCrude to market a semi-solid bitumen that can be shipped in marine containers to refineries in North America and overseas for further processing. Melius was formed earlier this year in the belief that Canadian bitumen can be transported in a safe and economical way based on the technology designed by BitCrude creator Cal Broder during a decade of developing the system.
Yuri Butler, Melius’s Manager of Logistics & Supply Chain, said in an interview the three-step BitCrude process starts with extracting the diluent needed to ship the very thick bitumen from the mine to a processing facility in the Edmonton area. From there, the bitumen is converted into a semi-solid state and loaded into containers specially adapted for Melius. BitCrude is non-flammable and will float in fresh and saltwater without being toxic to marine life, making it safe to transport by road, rail and ship.
The third step is returning the shipment to a liquid state at the receiving refinery using a proprietary process developed by BitCrude. Once it’s emptied, the container is returned to Melius for reloading.
The first successful export was delivered this fall to an Asian refinery in a 20-foot Melius container. It was transported to the port of Prince Rupert from Edmonton by CN Rail, which is a partner in a different venture to transport Alberta and Saskatchewan bitumen in solid clumps known as Canapux.
Melius Energy President Nicole Zhang said the BitCrude process “utilizes existing infrastructure to move bitumen, similar to how we move other consumer goods. The commercialization of this technology makes both economic and environmental sense.”
Butler said Melius now is working at growing its overseas markets by establishing relationships with refineries in Asia and building up the capacity of its process for developing a long-term, stable supply of BitCrude, which can be made into asphalt and related products as well as low-sulphur diesel. The demand in Asia for the premium heavy oil product that comes from the bitumen is greater than the capacity of the region’s refineries, he said. “There are lots of refineries looking for heavy fuels and we’re starting to ramp up to fill that demand.” The hope is that the demand for BitCrude will be great enough to free the product from the long-standing link of Prairie crude selling at a discount to U.S. domestic oil prices. “With these new markets, we could get higher prices.” The key is to be able to safely manage the shipments and BitCrude provides that assurance, he said.
The process uses a state-of-the-art electrically powered diluent recovery unit (DRU), avoiding further fossil fuel combustion and requires no chemicals, additives or diluent, creating both a safer product and a facility with a reduced greenhouse gas footprint, Melius says. The DRUs are modular, stackable and scalable making for a quick increase in production.
Meanwhile, CN says it is continuing “to advance the CanaPux project through licensing the technology to multiple industry partners, each of whom are concentrating on different overseas markets. The licensees will determine commercial in-service dates, although CN still anticipates transporting CanaPux in 2021.” Three years in development, Canapux pellets can be shipped within North America in open freight cars such as gondolas and hoppers and in bulk freighters to overseas destinations. They can be loaded onto ships using coal terminals.
Earlier this year, CN announced it’s working with several companies on CanaPux development. Wapahki Energy Ltd., a company owned by the Heart Lake First Nation in northern Alberta, is planning on a $50 million facility to turn 10,000 barrels of bitumen per day into CanaPux. CN Rail and Wapahki said they would each invest $16.7 million into the pilot project that would take two years to build and are talking to potential partners in the project.
Attention is also being paid to potential domestic customers for the product, said James Auld, CN’s Senior Manager of product development.
Jeff Paquin, President and CEO of Wapahki Energy, says the CanaPux process could save oil producers US$15 per barrel and use up the waste plastic that now ends up in provincial landfills to produce the polymer that covers the pellets. Shipping in freight cars rather than tank cars would be cheaper because they can transport more product per load and cost less to lease, he said. As well, the CanaPux process avoids the use of diluent, which would be another money saver. Paquin said that smaller oil producers in northern Alberta were excited about the technology because they are among the most heavily impacted companies from volatile swings in the price of oil prices caused by a lack of new pipeline capacity.
CN is also collaborating with Advantage Heavy Oil Development Ltd. (AHOD) on the development of a 100,000 barrels per day CanaPux solidification facility in Alberta. This project could also include a diluent recovery unit and a rail loading facility for multiple commodities. This group is looking at supplying Chinese refiners.
CN is working with InnoTech Alberta on a full GHG Lifecycle Emission study and a Fate in the Environment study to support CanaPux commercialization. There are other potential partners that have not been made public, CN said.
CanaPux capsules are dust-free, not volatile, will not spontaneously combust or explode and do not pose a risk if involved in a derailment. As well, they will float in water, making them easy to recover and won’t leak into the environment.