If Alberta was willing to risk $1.3 billion on a new pipeline project, it should be willing to invest at least that much in the commercialization of so-called “Bitumen Beyond Combustion” technologies. Those technologies can transform Alberta’s huge store of bitumen reserves into everything from carbon fibre (an ultra-strong material that can be used in electric vehicles) to graphenes and asphalts. By taking Alberta’s higher-carbon oil and using it to make higher-value products, we could turn the carbon intensity of the oilsands from a liability into an asset, and soften the blow of declining oil demand in its traditional markets in the future.
According to Bryan Helfenbaum, the executive director of advanced hydrocarbons in the clean energy division of Alberta Innovates, “as these advanced materials become used more and more, bitumen’s higher proportion of carbon atoms actually becomes a strategic advantage.” But the challenge right now isn’t so much the science as it is creating a market for it. “We still have a little ways to go to hit the kind of specifications to really have large commercial application,” Helfenbaum told the Globe and Mail, “but the proof of concept has really just been demonstrated in the past couple of years.”
That’s where this $1.3 billion investment in research and development, pilots and demonstrations, and market development can come into play. After all, if we were willing to bet that much money on an investment whose fate was ultimately beyond our control, surely we should be willing to put a similar amount to work on something that’s very much within it. That’s especially true when the size of the potential prize could be measured in the trillions of dollars within a decade.