In Brief
An engineer has discovered a way to turn liquid oil into spill-resistant pellets with air capsules in their core for buoyancy. These pellets would make transporting oil far safer for the environment and for the people working with it.

Tough Oil Capsules

An engineer has accidentally invented something that could change the way heavy oil gets to market.

Ian Gates, a professor at the University of Calgary’s Schulich School of Engineering, was researching ways to upgrade bitumen — the viscous, black blend of hydrocarbons left as a residue after petroleum distillation — when he accidentally degraded the bitumen. The result was an even more viscous product Gates realized he could “package” in self-sealing pellets.

These pellets consist of liquid centers inside super-viscous membranes, and a gas bubble injected in the center of each pellet makes them buoyant as well. Gates’ team can make these pellets in different sizes using about the same amount of energy required to render the bitumen liquid for pipeline shipping.

Once they arrive at their destination, the pellets can be reconstituted back into bitumen using a light oil produced during the pellet-creation process. Alternatively, they can be used for applications such as road paving without this extra step. “In that case, all you do is sell the solid to those markets,” Gates told CBC News’ Calgary Eyeopener.

Making Oil Safer

Transporting petroleum is risky whether by pipeline or rail.

Pipelines are far cheaper, but only once they’re installed, and that process is a major investment. A pipeline also represents a significant environmental risk for all the lands along its route — the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) was leaking oil even before it was operational.

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.

Gates’ rugged pellets, however, could mitigate these risks.

Not only could the balls be transported in the thousands of rail cars that were originally built for coal but that now sit idle, because they float, they could also be far more easily removed from water if they did spill into it.

“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 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.

Still, this safer mode of transport is already attracting interest from members of the the oil industry, 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.”