Rising Stars 2021: Alberta Innovates Chemist Pursuing Non-Combustion Uses For Bitumen
Editor's note: We'll be running all Rising Stars Class of 2021 profiles over the next two weeks. Today, we profile Paolo Bomben.
A professional chemist with a doctorate in chemistry from the University of Calgary, Paolo Bomben has always been fascinated about the interplay between chemistry and energy related matters.
As leader of the Bitumen Beyond Combustion program at provincially funded Alberta Innovates, he is putting that interest to work in research into how to transform bitumen into non-combustible products. “There’s chemistry involved in those transformations and that got me really excited,” says Bomben, senior manager of Clean Technology Development, who sees the program as Alberta’s greatest diversification opportunity.
“At the end of the day, bitumen is in my mind a resource; it’s a chemical mixture. It’s not just an input to make fuels.”
Bitumen Beyond Combustion aims to create a new value chain in non-combustion products, or, in the case of asphalt, building on an existing value chain. “It leverages our existing skill sets — oil and gas extraction and production,” and “builds on our strengths,” he says. “That’s why I see it as really important, because everyone who’s participating in the oil and gas value chain today can also participate in the bitumen beyond combustion value chain. We just have a different end state of, let’s say, materials, and that will create an industry of its own.”
The new value chain will be heavily focused on high-value, carbon material-based products such as carbon fibre, graphene and nanotubes, which are sought after by different industries for their strength and electrical properties, durability and resistance to corrosion, Bomben suggests. “I can see those industries growing in time.”
Despite his current focus on bitumen, Bomben obtained a PhD in solar cell materials before working on hydrogen electrolysis at a start-up company. He got into the oilpatch through two years in sustainability consulting, advising oil and gas companies on greenhouse gas quantification, as well as technology they could implement to reduce their environmental impacts.
Since joining Alberta Innovates three years ago, Bomben, who also is program manager of the Carbon Fibre Grand Challenge, has been focused entirely on a different approach in looking at Alberta’s hydrocarbon resources or bitumen molecules. “What we’re removing from the barrel for our Beyond Combustion concept is the parts that were to go through the cokers in the refinery, the heavy GHG intensive parts of the refinery,” he says. “The oils that come out are much more of a light oil and are easier to process and reduce the energy required in refineries.” They also are lower in greenhouse gas emissions.
Bomben, though, emphasizes that the BBC concept is still in its early stages and that the first products might not be available until the mid to end of this decade. “It takes time to develop the technology.”
He points out that AOSTRA (Alberta Oil Sands Technology and Research Authority) funded by the Alberta government advanced SAGD — relying on the work of Roger Butler, as well as other adaptions — but it was more than 25 years before the first project was in commercial operation. “In our minds because it’s above ground it [the BBC concept] will not take 30 years to develop. This will probably take a decade or so, before we can get there,” says Bomben. “But if we can unlock this opportunity, it’s an opportunity we believe will last for many, many decades to come, because the types of products we’re talking about will be needed to the end of the century and beyond.”
As for his future path, Bomben likely will be continuing to address the energy challenges around oil and gas development and the energy transition. “I see this sort of as my life’s work for the rest of my career, and 10 years from now, I’ll still be working down this line,” he says. “I don’t know exactly what projects I’ll be working on, but [I’ll be] certainly addressing the challenges that our energy sector faces as we navigate the different shifts that are coming.”
He also is optimistic about the future of the oil and gas industry. “I have the fortunate opportunity, working at Alberta Innovates, to see a lot of the new technologies and new ideas that are coming forward and the brilliant minds that are working on these problems in Alberta,” says Bomben. “I’m able to see these things in their infancy as they grow, as they move towards that [goal of solving problems] and have a sense of what they’ll be capable of once they reach full maturity.”
Rising Stars: Sponsors
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