For this month’s magazine, we looked at how to build the UK’s low carbon future. Pressure is on industry and scientists, for example, to aid the country’s transition from coal to wind power. And, sometimes, they’ll accidentally discover one thing while working on something completely unrelated.
Exactly this happened to Canadian professor Ian Gates. He works at the University of Calgary’s Schulich School of Engineering and was trying to harden bitumen for use in road building, but ended up creating gummy-like pellets. These are self-sealing and can trap petroleum inside their viscous skin during hardening to then be refined.
Gates first put his invention back on the shelf, thinking nobody would need bitumen pellets. It turned out there was a huge market for them. The Canadian oil industry wants to use the pellets to transport oil via rail instead of pipelines, which are often a cause for controversy. This way, not only the risk of oil spills is reduced – Gates injects the pellets with a gas bubble, making them buoyant – but also the environmental footprint, as lorry transportation, from pipeline to port for example, is unnecessary. The pellets will instead be travelling on old coal railcars, which have been sitting idle with the coal industry diminishing in Canada. In November, Gates and the local innovation hub started production by the barrel, directly at the wellhead.
On a separate note, the editorial team at Materials World wishes you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year! We are already working on the next edition, which will be with you at the beginning of January 2018 and focuses on civil engineering.