James Auld, CN senior manager of product development, holds a “Canapux” filled with solidified bitumen. (CN Rail)

‘Canapux’ may be next to ease B.C.’s heavy oil shipping pressure

Polymer-packaged pucks float, plastic can be recycled

CN Rail has hired a Calgary engineering firm to take the next step in its pilot project to increase the safety of crude oil shipped by rail.

The “Canapux” project is moving to a high-volume test phase this year with a pilot plant in Calgary, CN said in a statement from its Montreal headquarters. The trademarked name refers to rectangular packages using polymer plastic to solidify and encase the heavy oil.

Calgary-based Toyo Engineering Canada has been selected to build a facility to test the product’s durability at the volume required for open rail car shipping, similar to bulk commodities like coal and petroleum coke, a byproduct of conventional heavy oil refining. The Canapux float in water and oil doesn’t leak out.

CN and other railways are facing increased demand for liquid crude oil shipments as Alberta looks for ways to move oil sands crude with pipeline projects stalled or cancelled. CN serves Prince Rupert on B.C.’s North Coast, an increasingly busy route with lumber, grain and other commodities, and is planning extended sidings and other work to handle more long freight trains.

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James Auld, CN senior manager of product development and project lead for the “Canapux” project, said the test of bulk shipping is to show that the polymer product can handle high-speed, high-volume handling.

“Then it’s up to the industry to adopt the product, and we’ll be standing by to move as many carloads as we possibly can,” Auld said.

The process starts with blending polymer with the oil, then encasing it in containers of the same plastic, which can be extracted and reused.

An earlier technology tested at the University of Calgary made pellets out of bitumen by extracting the lighter petroleum. The so-called “neatbit” process reverses the industry standard technique of adding diluent, a liquid byproduct from natural gas wells, that allows heavy oil to be shipped in pipelines or conventional rail tankers.

While the pellets on their own can be used to make asphalt pavement, lighter petroleum would have to be shipped in and added in order to feed a heavy oil refinery.

Alberta already has four refineries and four upgraders to process bitumen, and Premier Rachel Notley has issued an invitation for proposals to build more. Notley has also announced plans for Alberta to buy more conventional oil tanker cars, as court disputes grind on over the expansion of the Trans Mountain oil pipeline from Alberta to its only shipping terminal at Burnaby.

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Black Press publisher David Black wrote to Notley this month to pitch his Kitimat Clean project, arguing that only a coastal refinery is a viable way to add to the province’s capacity to export refined fuels.

“Unfortunately the refinery cannot be located inland,” wrote Black, who has developed a new generation refinery design that could be supplied with heavy crude by rail or pipeline from Alberta’s oil sands. “The capital cost to build a large, brand-new refinery inland is so high that it is never economically viable. That is why all major export refineries in the world are located on an ocean coast.”

Machinery modules are being imported from Asia to build the LNG Canada processing facility at Kitimat, and a similar approach is taken for new oil refineries around the world.


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