Opinion: An Alberta-made high-seas pollution solution

What do beer, bitumen and greenhouse gas emissions have in common?

That would be Neil Camarta, founder of Field Upgrading.

Camarta spent most of his engineering career building conventional upgraders, which emit sulphur dioxide and other noxious GHG pollutants into the atmosphere.

Now he’s teamed up with the Coors Brewing family and Alberta Innovates to commercialize a simple and clean upgrading technology for heavy oil. And he’s even found a novel market for his product that will make a significant contribution toward reducing pollution from ships.

That’s not bad for a landlocked prairie company.

Camarta, a chemical engineer, has helped build heavy oil upgraders for Shell and Petro-Canada.

In recent years, his mantra is cleaner and cheaper. That’s what drives him and business partner Guy Turcotte to be innovators.

“We talk to a lot of inventors. If we like their idea, then we work with them to commercialize the technology. In this case, the inventors are the Coors family, who make beer in Colorado, of all things.”

Sodium connects beer to bitumen. “It’s as if it was programmed to remove all the ‘dirty’ from dirty oil,” says Camarta.

Field Upgrading’s novel process begins with elemental sodium, a metal that melts at the relatively low temperature of 100C. “It mixes really well with oil. It takes out all the sulphur. It takes out all the metals. It takes out all the acid. So it cleans up the oil and it doesn’t leave piles of coke or asphaltenes behind.”

The kicker is recovering the sodium because of its high value.

That’s where Coors comes in. Besides making beer, they’re also the world’s largest manufacturer of high-tech ceramics.

“One of their specialty ceramics allows us to recycle sodium using electrolysis in a battery-like setup,” Camarta explains. “When you use sulphur from the oil using sodium, you make sodium sulphide. You put the sodium sulphide in the battery, turn on the power and it separates the sodium from the sulphur. So you’re able to recycle the sodium.”

Conventional upgrading of heavy oil requires the use of high pressure, high temperature and many catalysts. Because of the focus on hydrogen, that results in emissions like hydrogen sulphide, sulphur dioxide and nitrous oxide.

But by using sodium as the de-sulphuring agent, the reaction with Field Upgrading’s technology is exothermic, meaning it makes heat. Any greenhouse gas emissions are indirect, depending on the source of electricity used for the batteries. “So it’s very clean. It’s also very simple. We just have a reactor and these batteries,” says Carmata. He calls the process elegant.

Camarta spent four years developing the technology bench scale at a Coors-owned lab in Salt Lake City. Now he has opened a pilot plant in Fort Saskatchewan, with plans for a demonstration plant next on the path to commercialization. Funding over the years has come from Alberta Innovates, Natural Resources Canada, Sustainable Development Technology Canada and the former CCEMC, now called Emissions Reduction Alberta.

And Field Upgrading’s target market?

“The largest single consumer of high-sulphur heavy oil is the marine industry,” says Camarta. “All the ships that sail upon the sea, they burn about four million barrels a day of 3.5 per cent sulphur. I think there’s a fact that goes something like this: that the world’s 15 largest ships make more pollution in the form of sulphur dioxide than all the cars in the world put together. “

In October 2016, the International Maritime Organization ruled that by 2020, every ship must change over to fuel that has a reduced sulphur content of 0.5 per cent.

“So that’s our market. We would take the sulphur out of heavy oil and then we would take it to tidewater and we would sell it into the shipping industry, because our oil fits the new sulphur regulations perfectly.”

Field Upgrading has already met with companies in Singapore and other shipping centres.

The technology offers a major market opportunity for the oilsands industry. With diesel well over $70 a barrel, this will help in diversifying Alberta’s economy and it’s an environmental win for the world’s atmosphere and oceans.

Says Camarta about his Calgary office: “We must be the only people here with a boardroom with a big ship on the wall – just to remind us of what our market is.”

Not surprisingly, the demonstration plant will be named Clean Seas.

Troy media columnist Cheryl Croucher is a veteran broadcast and online journalist.

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