Canadian National Railway Co. is hoping something the size of a bar of soap – an oil puck – can help clean up some of the problems of shipping oil by rail and ship.
Canada’s largest railway filed a patent for a new technology on Friday that turns bitumen – the heavy crude produced at the oil sands – into a mostly solid dry good, by mixing and wrapping it with polymer. In the event of an accident, the packets would not explode, leak, or sink in water, the railway believes.
“It’s still early days, so there’s a lot of work still to do. First and foremost, we want to perfect the pellet in terms of its shape, its size and the exact composition of polymer that we use in it,” said Janet Drysdale, vice-president of corporate development at CN. The pellets, currently in round form, will eventually be produced as flat squares or rectangles, so that they are stackable as a dry good.
“We want to do the studies that will prove that it will float in fresh water, salt water, how it behaves in cold and in heat. All of that will be validated with additional lab work.”
The polymer-infused crude, which resembles thick jelly if the soap-sized tablets are cut open, is designed to be much less flammable. “It’s pretty thick stuff,” said Ross Chow, vice-president of InnoTech Alberta, a provincially funded organization that worked with CN on the patent.
Success of the invention will depend on whether oil-sands producers and refiners are willing to adopt the technology at a cost that is roughly equivalent to shipping bitumen with diluent now, CN says.
The tablets wouldn’t prevent accidents like the 2013 Lac-Mégantic rail disaster, which killed 47 people when an oil train exploded in the Quebec town, since that accident involved highly volatile light oil that resembled gasoline. The technology hasn’t been developed for lighter forms of oil, but it could make shipping bitumen and other heavy oil products safer, CN believes.
Once the pellets reach a refinery, heating separates the bitumen and polymer mixture, along with their polymer casing. The tablets are also designed to absorb the weight of being stacked on each other. “It has to handle a lot of different forces,” said James Auld, senior manager of corporate development at CN.