Canadian Manufacturing

Alberta could lead world in better carbon utilization, expert says

ConocoPhillips Canada exec Bob Mitchell said province has responsibility to lead carbon utilization development



CALGARY—Alberta has the opportunity and responsibility to lead the world in hydrocarbon utilization, and not just in reducing the emissions intensity of energy production, developing carbon capture and long-term geologic storage projects, or fuel switching from hydrocarbons to renewables.

Instead, Bob Mitchell sees a world where hydrocarbons help elevate the livelihood and well-being of the globe as its population continues to increase.

“Quit running away from the climate change challenge as if it’s a threat. Look at it as an opportunity and we can do a lot,” Mitchell, senior director of innovating for performance and sustainability in ConocoPhillips Canada Resources Corp.’s oilsands business unit, told an Oilsands Review Speaker Series breakfast.

“I really think one of the problems we’ve had in society is not enough hope. We’ve spent too much time over the past 20 or 30 years being afraid of things, and the boogeyman around the corner is a great opportunity for us to get out there and create the future we want and if we do, it’s the future we deserve.”

Mitchell said Alberta needs a flue-gas capture and carbon dioxide commercialization centre—even a campus—where innovators and inventors can share ideas and concepts, kickstart innovation in important new areas and get more value out of the province’s hydrocarbons.

“We need to give people a place to prove, to de-risk technologies so we can apply them back in a commercial space,” he said. “If we do I really think the world will embrace this.”

Some “really cool things” can be made from carbon-based materials, said Mitchell, who two years ago was recognized for his leadership in Alberta’s oilsands sector with an Emerald Award, presented by the Alberta Emerald Foundation.

“The imagination runs wild and we have a real opportunity for Alberta to be in the lead in this world,” he said. “I think Alberta has the opportunity, and really, has the responsibility, to be a hydrocarbon utilizer-producer that the world needs.

“We have a great responsibility, a great opportunity and we just have to think differently about what we’re doing and make better use of the natural endowments we’ve got.”

Alberta could contribute the practice of diverting carbon into the food chain and, eventually, use excess carbon in 3D food printers, carbon-based materials for nano-filters and aerogels for electrodialysis to desalinate water, he suggested.

The province could also provide advanced carbon-based insulation and building materials, thereby creating new business opportunities and capitalizing on the chemical values of carbon and hydrogen, he said.

“Instead of emitting (carbon dioxide) and other things into the atmosphere, whether you believe in climate change or not, that is a wasted product. We need to do industrial synergies. We need to find ways to use those products instead of just releasing them,” said Mitchell, co-founder of the Oil Sands Leadership Initiative, which has been rolled into the Canadian Oil Sands Innovation Alliance and the Sustainable Communities Initiative.

“To do that we need to embrace open innovation, captivate innovators, facilitate collaboration and help ideas become reality by bridging the technology valley of death.”

It is up to the private sector to develop a carbon innovation campus; government is not going to take the lead on this, he said.

While current uses of hydrocarbons include transportation fuels, home heating and electricity generation, higher-value uses in the future may be 3D printing, graphene, ammonia and biofuel bicycles.

Graphene is a one-atom-thick miracle substance that’s stronger than steel and appears to be a super-conductor, Mitchell said.

“It seems to be a promising, promising product,” he continued.

He said “really smart people” are focused on energy efficiency and conservation, fuel-switching hydrocarbons to renewables, reducing the energy and emissions intensity of energy production, fuel switching from hydrocarbons to nuclear and fission, capture and long-term geologic storage, and capture and enhanced resource recovery—all of which have become mainstream.

But until recently what hasn’t been pursued are air capture and conversion, flue-gas capture and carbon dioxide conversion, and higher-value uses of hydrocarbons such as materials and clean fuels—realizing that there is more chemical value in hydrocarbons than there is thermal value, he noted.

“We can divert carbon dioxide … into the food chain by putting it into fertilizers (and) composting, but if you get futuristic, we could be printing using carbon molecules to actually make food like a 3D print,” he said.

Recently a 3D-printed hamburger was created, although Mitchell said tasters pronounced it “not the best hamburger in the world.”

Aerogels are the world’s lightest solid materials, composed of as much as 99.98 per cent air by volume.

Transparent, super-insulating silica aerogels exhibit the lowest thermal conductivity of any known solid.

Ultrahigh surface-area carbon aerogels power today’s fast-charging supercapacitors, and ultra-strong, bendable x-aerogels are the lowest-density structural materials ever developed.

A Calgary-based company is using electrodialysis with aerogel filters to desalinate water, said Mitchell.

Normally desalination takes a lot of energy but it is generating electricity, he said.

“It’s a really promising technology,” he said. “It was developed in the oilsands but it could be applicable around the world.”

Now, with advanced plastics and materials, lighter, stronger buildings might be able to deal with catastrophes such as earthquakes and hurricanes because carbon-based materials have the ability to sway better than steel and concrete do, he told the gathering.

At a time when cleaner, reliable power is needed, Mitchell imagines tacking on value-adding components to tailpipes and power plant smokestacks so that carbon emissions aren’t wasted but instead turned into useful products.

Hydrogen can be removed from hydrocarbons to make more hydrogen-rich fuels and other products so that the emissions are not contaminating the atmosphere and affecting peoples’ health, he said.

“The big one here to me is, if we do a better job of this and make better use of our hydrocarbons we reduce the need for conflict and tension over hydrocarbons because now everybody in the world can follow our example and find more livelihood out of what they’ve got,” he said.

The world can switch from having its carbon dioxide going into the atmosphere and land and acidifiying the oceans to one where it goes into products such as the BMW I3, which Mitchell said he has driven and is a “pretty neat,” mostly carbon-based electric vehicle, or an enclosed motorcycle that is currently in production.

“It’s got a gyroscope so it doesn’t tip over,” he said of the motorcycle.

Mitchell invited his audience to consider how they might contribute to this “new world,” adding they do not have to switch careers or do different things at work.

A self-professed collaborator by nature and experience, Mitchell belongs to a volunteer organization that meets after work and on weekends to advance technology and innovation because its members are passionate about these subjects.

“There is an opportunity for you to get into the open innovation world, play around, deal with people all around the world, throw your hunches out there,” he said. “Let’s embrace the opportunities.”

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