Alberta ready to compete with Saudis, China in global materials transition

Maybe it’s time to think of advanced materials as Alberta’s future

Calgary hosted the 24th World Petroleum Congress in September and my favourite moment was a happy accident. Strolling along, checking out newsworthy technical presentations, I stumbled upon one about making materials (think carbon fibre) from hydrocarbons. The scientists on the stage caught my eye.

From left to right: Dr. Ibrahim Abba, Saudi Aramco; Dr. Paolo Bomben, Alberta Innovates; Dr. Mazim Tamimi, Saudi Aramco; Dr. Dongyue Peng, SINOPEC Research Institute of Petroleum Engineering.

Moderator Dr. Ibrahim Abba is the head of Saudi Aramco’s technology commercialization division. One of the panelists was his lead research scientist and another was a senior engineer at China’s SINOPEC Research Institute of Petroleum Engineering. But the fourth presenter, Alberta’s Innovate’s Dr. Paolo Bomben, is what really piqued my interest.

Not many Albertans know that their province is a global leader in the research to turn oil and gas into a variety of materials. Dr. Bomben, along with his colleague Dr. Bryan Helfenbaum, has been at the forefront of that effort. I’ve interviewed both of them many times about the Bitumen Beyond Combustion program and the Carbon Fibre Grand Challenge.

A point they come back to again and again is that their research is at that tenuous stage where well-heeled competitors, like Saudi Arabia and China, could significantly expand funding and overtake Alberta.

Why should Albertans – and Canadians in general, frankly – be worried about that possibility? Dr. Abba provided the answer. In addition to the energy transition, he said during his opening remarks, the world is also at the beginning of a materials transition. 

A materials transition? Huh. (below, watch my interview about the materials transition with Dr. Bomben)

Humans have been making synthetic materials from oil and gas for decades. That’s hardly news. Alberta is already home to the second largest petrochemical cluster in North America, behind the US Gulf Coast.

What’s changed? A number of things, according to Dr. Bomben. 

The global population is expected to grow by almost two billion by 2050. Where will we get enough steel, aluminum, and other traditional materials? Bitumen-based materials like carbon fibre can replace those metals or, in some cases, like concrete, be added to them.

New industries, especially electric vehicles, would benefit from lighter, stronger materials. Batteries are heavy and add considerable weight to an EV. “Lightweighting” EVs is a big issue – and potential market – for Alberta-made carbon fibre.

The circular economy idea has really caught on and new materials can be designed to be recycled. This has been a key research goal of Bitumen Beyond Combustion, says Dr. Bomben.

Let’s not forget the economic benefits for Alberta, which may finally have a bead on the province’s Holy Grail, economic diversification. In a 2021 white paper, Alberta Innovates estimated that Bitumen Beyond Combustion alone could add $60 billion to the provincial economy. And that includes only processing of asphaltenes, the “heavy end” that makes up roughly half of the bitumen barrel. There is plenty of opportunity for the light ends as well, says Dr. Bomben.

My key takeaway from the Petroleum Congress presentation comes courtesy of Dr. Abba. He did a great job convincing the audience (and me) that the opportunity to use oil as feedstock for emerging materials like carbon fibre is real. The Saudis certainly seem convinced that materials are part of their pivot away from using hydrocarbons primarily for fuel.

To date, Alberta seems to think of Bitumen Beyond Combustion as a Plan B in case the International Energy Agency is correct and peak oil demand is just around the corner.

Maybe it’s time to think of it as the future. A more prosperous future.

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