Upgrading Energy Sources

Bitumen is a black, oily, naturally occurring organic product of decomposed organic materials. Alberta’s oilsands contain vast amounts of unconventional oil in the form of bitumen.

Lignite is a brown coal (in more scientific terms, a brown carbonaceous sedimentary rock) with a woody texture made of accumulated layers of partly decomposed vegetation. More lignite is mined in Germany than in any other country in the world.

Upgrading means treating bitumen, heavy oil, or lignite to increase its value. Processing oilsands bitumen also allows it to travel by pipeline and makes it more attractive to petroleum refineries.

Why Is this Research Important?

Bitumen and lignite upgrading, like any other energy transformation, requires work.  Due to the more complex structure of bitumen and lignite than conventional crude oil and natural gas, upgrading processes are more energy intensive.

This Helmholtz-Alberta Initiative research field is developing new upgrading technologies to accomplish the following:

  • Improve the value of bitumen and lignite coal
  • Reduce energy consumption during upgrading
  • Improve overall carbon efficiency of oilsands operations and lignite utilization

Our research could increase the attractiveness of upgrading bitumen and lignite in Canada, as an alternative to exporting unprocessed raw material at the lowest possible price.

Scientific Background

Upgrading processes for bitumen either lose a significant amount of feed to unwanted by-products (such as thermal coking) or use large amounts of hydrogen (e.g. in hydroconversion).

The technologies we will develop will apply to the following:

  • Direct processing of the bitumen
  • Producing hydrogen as a feedstock to the upgrading operations
  • Processing of byproduct and waste streams, such as petroleum coke

Integrating bitumen upgrading with gasification creates new opportunities to convert unwanted components in the bitumen by pyrolysis and gasification to create higher value liquid streams and chemical feedstocks.

Improved gasification processes will also enhance the availability of high-quality CO2 streams with results that will support other Helmholtz-Alberta Initiative research areas, such as carbon capture and storage.

Research Focus

The major research questions for this project include these:

  • How can we remove the least desirable components from the bitumen for separate handling to improve the processing options for the remaining material?
  • Can reactor design and operation control the cracking of large bitumen molecules to give the best quality products?
  • How can we improve the high-temperature reactions of the carbon-rich residues and undesirable components to improve the production of hydrogen and carbon dioxide by gasification?

Research Coordinators

Dr Thomas Kolb
Director, Division of Combustion Technology—Thermal Waste Treatment
Karlsruhe Institute of Technology KIT
Karlsruhe, Germany

Dr Arno de Klerk
Nexen Professor of Catalytic Reaction Engineering
Department of Chemical and Materials Engineering
University of Alberta
Edmonton, Alberta, Canada

Coordinating Institutions: