Jan. 4, 2022

Researchers turn Alberta oilsands bitumen into high-value carbon fibres

Trio of UCalgary teams among Carbon Fibre Grand Challenge finalists
Abstract Carbon fibre with pimples (stock photo). Colourbox

The strands of gooey substance being spun together at a University of Calgary laboratory are finer than a human hair.

These are actually asphaltenes from Alberta’s oilsands, and Dr. Md Kibria, PhD, is turning them into carbon fibres.

An assistant professor in the Department of Chemical and Petroleum Engineering at the Schulich School of Engineering, Kibria leads one of three UCalgary projects selected in the Carbon Fibre Grand Challenge Phase II competition conducted by Alberta Innovates and the Clean Resource Innovation Network (CRIN).

The three-phase competition is aimed at accelerating the development of carbon fibre derived from Alberta’s vast supply of bitumen.

“Asphaltenes are commonly known as the ‘bottom of the barrel,’” says Kibria. “It’s the heavy fraction in bitumen which holds great promise to serve as a cheap feedstock for a wide variety of non-combustible, high-value products such as carbon fibres.”

Refining the process

The asphaltenes are heated up to become a gel of sorts, which a spinner then winds into carbon fibres. The fibres then go through several steps to make them stronger, with some guessing and testing along the way.

We know that it’s feasible to make the fibres. Now the question is: How strong can we make it?

- Md Kibria

He hopes to create high-end carbon fibres that meet the standard for the automotive and airline industries, for whom they can be used to create body components, wheels and rims, interior finishes, and other products.

Kibria calls it a “win-win-win” situation because materials that don’t meet that high standard can still be used for other applications like carbon fibre-reinforced concrete.

Other UCalgary teams in the running

Two other Schulich professors, Dr. Simon Park, PhD, and Dr. Joanna Wong, Dr.sc.ETH — both with the Department of Mechanical and Manufacturing Engineering — are spearheading projects that also made it into the final 12 of the competition.

“One of the challenges associated with traditional carbon fibre-making is the high energy needed to convert polymer-based precursors to fibres,” Park says. “We are currently investigating new methods to generate carbon fibres by minimizing the energy usage through both chemical and electromagnetic treatments.”

His team is using both melt spinning and electrospinning processes to generate nano-scale and micro-scale fibres.

Wong, meanwhile, says her team’s approach “involves studying the chemical characteristics or particular fractions of different asphaltene samples. We are studying how their chemistries affect the rheology of the melts which, in turn, affects the quality of fibres that can be made.”

Seizing an opportunity

In the eyes of many, the use of the heavy fraction of bitumen to make non-combustible products represents a major opportunity for Alberta’s energy transition and its job market.

Phase II of the Carbon Fibre Challenge moves us closer to realizing the potential of Bitumen Beyond Combustion,” says Alberta Innovates CEO Laura Kilcrease. “Alberta’s vast reserves of bitumen are the building blocks to create new low-carbon opportunities throughout the province.”

In total, the 12 teams that moved on in the competition received a share of $5.27 million to produce the carbon fibres at a lab scale and develop a process with line of sight to a demonstration plant that can be commercially scaled.

“Our target isn’t just to make a product,” says Kibria, who received $500,000 in funding for Phase II. “We want to make a carbon fibre that the end users need for different applications.”

Park obtained $485,000 in funding and Wong secured $217,000 for the second phase of the competition, which is expected to wrap up in December 2022.

Phase III, which will see the finalists demonstrate how they can manufacture the fibres in a way to enable commercial investment, is expected to run from January 2023 to December 2024.