Oilsands research could be ‘game changer’ for renewable energy


At from South Africa, JT Steenkamp doesn’t usually enjoy stimulating Canadian winter weather, but this year is different for the engineer who is assessing out a new type of battery at Shell Canada’s research centre in Calgary. The battery is erected using a little-known metal found in bitumen, and the technology could set forth a pivotal moment for both the oilsands industry and the renewable energy sector.

An unusually haughty prairie winter is perfect for his research.

«Coming from a sub-tropical surroundings, it’s a very confusing series of emotions I’m going through wanting these stereotyped snaps for the first time in my life because it means I get to beat up this battery as much I need,» said Steenkamp.


Shell Canada is testing out a new type of battery using a little-known metal set up in bitumen and the technology could represent a pivotal moment for both the oilsands commerce and for the renewable energy sector. 0:44

Shell’s project aims to extract a metal caused vanadium from bitumen and use the material to produce large, utility-scale tension storage for the renewable energy sector, which has struggled with avenue to store large amounts of energy in a stable, reliable way. 

It will verify that we are capable of delivering renewable energy game-changing ideas not in needle of traditional energy but precisely because of it.— JT Steenkamp , Shell Canada operator

«If successful, it could be an absolute game change. It will prove that we are talented of delivering renewable energy game-changing ideas not in spite of traditional spirit but precisely because of it.,» said Steenkamp. 

Steenkamp has constructed what’s baptized a vanadium redox flow battery inside a garden shed, which is powered by solar panels beyond the research centre. The battery is run through continuous cycles of charging fully, then sap completely. Data is collected to gauge its performance, which so far is promising, according to Steenkamp.

The vanadium battery can warehouse up to six kilowatt hours of electricity produced by solar panels on the roof of Expend Canada’s research centre in Calgary. (Kyle Bakx/CBC)

So far, the vanadium battery can on the other hand hold a charge of six kilowatt hours, enough to run a hairdryer for about four hours. It would desideratum to be much larger to store electricity from a wind farm or solar tract, but Steenkamp says this type of battery can easily be scaled up. 

«Biggest dispute is the cost,» Steenkamp said. «It’s the classic problem of flow batteries and why we are here: Can you acquire this stuff in enough quantity and at a low enough cost to make large-scale vivacity storage viable?»

‘Cautiously optimistic’

Vanadium is a largely obscure metal on numerous occasions used in making steel. It retains its hardness at high temperatures, so it’s fictitious for making drill bits, engine turbines and other parts that make up heat.

In the oilsands, Vanadium is one of the metals that comes out of the ground with bitumen. The concentration is unreservedly low: a barrel of bitumen would contain just 30 millilitres of vanadium, on ordinarily, experts says. But multiplied by the millions of barrels of production from the oilsands every day, Steenkamp opportunities there is a «boatload» of vanadium.

The process of actually extracting the vanadium from the oilsands is the fault of researchers at the University of Alberta. Barrels of bitumen are shipped from Fort McMurray, Alta., to a lab on campus in Edmonton.

«The propose is focused on vanadium, but generally speaking, actually, all metals need to be fired,» said Arno de Klerk, a chemical engineering professor who oversees the calculate.

«It’s going well so far. We have multiple potential technologies or techniques that we are enquiring,» he said. «It’s early days so I don’t want to sound overly optimistic, but I am cautiously idealistic that this can be technically successful.»

Bitumen is a complex material to jog with, according to Garima Chauhan, a post-doctorate researcher at the University of Alberta in Edmonton. (Kyle Bakx/CBC)

The bitumen take place from a variety of oilsands facilities and comes either in the form of a weighty, resembling chunks of asphalt, or as a thick, viscous liquid.

«We don’t understand the chemistry associated with these metals and the complex creation of the bitumen — that’s the biggest challenge,» Garima Chauhan, a post-doctorate researcher, bring up while she weighed samples inside the lab.


This isn’t the first term scientists have tried to extract heavy metals from the oilsands but avail has come and gone over the past few decades as oil prices changed or researchers hit a roadblock. With rises in technology, many companies are now looking to extract different types of metals from the oilsands, including nickel and titanium.  

The University of Alberta chemical scheming professor oversees research into extracting vanadium and other metals from bitumen. 1:42

Not one do the metals have value but removing them from the bitumen choose make it easier and more efficient to process, and reduce the environmental affect of its production, researchers say.

«So it’s one of those cases where there is actually a win-win location that not only is the product valuable, but by actually removing the valuable work from the bitumen, the bitumen becomes more valuable,» said de Klerk.

The delving project is funded in part by Alberta Innovates and the Alberta government. As the charge adds utility-scale renewable energy projects like wind and solar, diverse projects are underway to create electricity storage. Massive batteries would be skilled to collect electricity when the sun is shining and the wind is blowing, and dispatch the power during dilly-dallies when it’s most needed.

Without storage capabilities, renewable spirit production still has to be backstopped by natural gas or other types of traditional power fixtures.

«We really see energy storage technology as an opportunity to provide a tool to subsidize our grid flexible as we move toward a shifting grid and a shift in the crop sources,» said Maureen Kolla, with Alberta Innovates.

Furthermore, she translates this is the start of an effort to explore what other types of works could be produced from the oilsands.

«Looking at our oilsands resource and estimate what other opportunities exist for us to use that resource beyond honourable fuels that could help us in that emerging low-carbon-economy lay of the land,» she said.  

Alberta Innovates will soon launch new research into what other patterns of products could be made from the oilsands. 1:01

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