February 2012

Historical Metallurgy

A hundred years of fossil fuels reasearch at CANMET

By David Reeve

Part 1: 1907 to the 1950s

Programs related to the recovery, processing and utilization of fossil fuels at CanmetENERGY, the agency for clean energy research and technology within Natural Resources Canada (NRCan), trace their origins back to 1907, to the establishment of the Fuels and Fuels Testing Division of the Mines Branch in Ottawa. This two-part series presents an overview of the main fossil fuel technology programs since that time, and their impact on the development of fuel and energy use in Canada.

Historical development of the organization

In 1909, a Fuels Testing Station was built on Booth Street in Ottawa. Having outgrown its premises, the division moved into the Fuel Research Laboratories in 1929 and less than a decade later, the building needed to be expanded.

Throughout the years, the division also underwent several name changes: Fuels Division in 1949; Fuels and Mining Practice in 1959, to acknowledge its contribution to mining research; and with the two disciplines growing further apart, the division split in 1967 and adopted the names Fuels Research Centre and the Mining Research Centre.

In 1968, the two centres moved to the newly built Bells Corners Complex west of Ottawa. A separate division, the Metals Reduction and Energy Centre (MREC), was created a year later to put greater emphasis on the evaluation of Canadian coal resources and to seek solutions to the high cost of energy in metal ore reduction. MREC also included the Mines Branch’s Western Regional Laboratory (WRL) at Edmonton, where work on coal preparation and coal pipeline transportation was being carried out.

In 1975, the Mines Branch changed its name to the Canada Centre for Mineral and Energy Technology (CANMET) and, in recognition of the rapidly emerging importance of energy technologies following the 1973 Energy Crisis, the word “fuels” was dropped from the divisional title and replaced with “energy” when the Fuels Research Centre and MREC were combined to form the Energy Research Laboratories (ERL).

With increasing interest in energy forms beyond fossil fuels, NRCan technical programs on energy efficiency and alternative energy, including at the research centre at Varennes, Quebec, were added to ERL’s responsibilities to form the CANMET Energy Technology Centre (CETC) in 1995. CETC has since been rebranded as CanmetENERGY and develops technologies for energy solutions in buildings and communities, clean fossil fuels, bioenergy systems, renewable energy, industrial processes, oil sands issues and in the transportation sector.

The early years (1907 to 1920)

In 1907, it was thought that peat could used as an alternative to what was considered to be the limited deposits of bituminous coal in the United States, making it a candidate as a fuel for gas and electricity production. The Fuels and Fuels Testing Division began investigating the production and utilization of peat, and an experimental plant was established at the Alfred Bog, east of Ottawa, to harvest it. A gas producer fuelled with the dried peat was built on Booth Street. Higher than expected costs to produce the peat, however, led to a shift in interest to the use of low-rank coals, such as Alberta sub-bituminous coals, for making producer gas.

The Fuels and Fuels Testing Division was also charged with surveying the coal deposits of Canada. It took over a systematic investigation of the properties of Canadian coals that had been started by the Geological Survey. A final report entitled “The Coals of Canada,” covering 67 types of coal from Vancouver Island to Cape Breton, was published between 1912 and 1916 in seven volumes.

From 1916 to 1923, combustion tests on Canadian coals dealt with the refinements of fuel use for house heating and steam raising, using a 200 hp boiler that had been installed in the Fuels Testing Station on Booth Street. The first “Analysis of Canadian Fuels” was published in 1918.

Interest in the properties of Canadian oil shale and oil sands deposits grew when it was thought that oil production in North America had peaked. The destructive distillation of oil shales, mainly from New Brunswick, was carried out with retorts used earlier for lignite carbonization. However, it was concluded that these deposits were of too low an average grade to be economically important.

The first mention of the oil sands being a potentially valuable energy resource for Canada was in a 1912 Mines Branch publication. S. C. Ells of the Mines Branch surveyed outcrops of oil sands on the banks of the Athabasca River in northern Alberta; a “Summary Report on Bituminous Sands of Northern Alberta” was published in 1913. By 1917, work on oil sands had fallen within the purview of the Fuels and Fuels Testing Division, and an oil analysis laboratory was established.

The 1920s to the late 1930s

Although interest in finding an economical use for peat as a fuel continued throughout the 1920s, the main focus of the Fuels and Fuels Testing Division, within the budgetary restraints of the times, was in the monitoring of the quality of Canada’s fossil fuel resource base at a time when imports of oil products for use in transportation and heating were increasing.

The division’s coal carbonization program focused on the production of smokeless domestic fuel by low-temperature carbonization, and coals from Nova Scotia were sent to Wales for commercial-scale tests. Although the quality of the domestic fuel produced was satisfactory, the process was not found to be economical for Canadian conditions. In 1930, with the realization that coke quality can only be determined by carrying out tests on coke produced on a relatively large scale, a coke oven, heated by producer gas, was built on Booth Street that could accommodate two tons of coal charge. Proving to be too expensive to operate, it was replaced by two 500-pound ovens later in the decade.

The ovens were used to evaluate the potential of Canadian metallurgical coals for making blast-furnace coke and to investigate the manufacture of domestic coke as a replacement fuel for imported anthracite. In order to find ways to replace thermal coals imported from the United States, a program was initiated to evaluate the combustion properties of Canadian coals using a new pulverized fuel boiler. A series of 130 separate tests of Canadian coals was carried out between 1930 and 1939.

The program on the retorting of oil shales was expanded to include samples from Saskatchewan and Manitoba. This was a relatively large-scale and costly program originally aimed at finding an alternative for the dwindling production in the southern Ontario oil fields. However, the division again concluded that because of the cost of heating up large amounts of shale in the retorting process, oil from this source would not be able compete with imported oil.

In 1925, 375 tons of oil sands were used for road paving tests in Jasper, Alberta. The main obstacle in processing the oil sands, however, proved to be separation of the bitumen from the sand. Oil sand from a quarry operated by the Fuels and Fuels Testing Division was successfully separated into bitumen and sand at an adjacent site using hot water and flotation, a precursor of the Clark “Hot Water” process that is still used commercially today. In 1929, work first started on bitumen upgrading by hydrogenation, a catalytic high-pressure process for increasing the hydrogen to carbon ratio in hydrocarbon materials which had first been developed by Bergius in Germany earlier in the century.

The World War II years to the early 1950s

Programs during the war years focused on special projects essential to the war effort, including investigation of the use of activated carbon in gas masks and the possibility of using Turner Valley (Alberta) crude oil as a source of aviation fuel.

In 1943, Canada was faced with an emergency fuel situation and the utilization of peat gained attention once again. Greater use of the fuel at locations close to the deposits was encouraged by modifying conventional coal and wood-fired furnaces to burn the peat. Extensive physical and chemical evaluations of Canadian coals continued and the analytical data were compiled periodically in the “Directory of Canadian Coals.”

In 1939, a request was received from the Crow’s Nest Pass Coal Company of British Columbia to observe tests of their coals in Curran-Knowles sole-heated ovens in Illinois. The swelling characteristics of this coal had precluded the use of conventional (and more expensive) slot-type ovens. Subsequently, a battery of 52 Curran-Knowles ovens was constructed at Michel in the Crow’s Nest Pass to produce coke for the lead smelter at Trail. Extensive studies were also carried out in the Fuels Laboratory during this period on the briquetting characteristics of low-rank coals to improve their storage and handling properties.

The coal combustion program continued to run parallel to the carbonization activities. An experimental locomotive-type stoker-fired boiler was acquired and was used during the war to evaluate low-smoke-producing Canadian coal for railway use as a substitute for imported Welsh and American anthracites. The division provided valuable technical advice to the Dominion Coal Board, which had been established in 1947 to provide subventions for moving coal from the Maritimes and the western provinces to markets in Ontario and Quebec.

Pioneering research on the conversion of coal to liquid fuels, which had been started before World War II, was revived in 1942 and shifted to study oil sands bitumen separation and refining. The division became involved in the oil sands plant of Abasands Oils Limited, north of Fort McMurray, carrying out analyses of all of the samples and assuming responsibility for setting up pilot-scale bitumen processing equipment.

Separation of the bitumen and sand was to be effected by a “cold water” process using kerosene as a diluent. However, it was later found that the cold water separation process was too sensitive to minor changes in the amount of gravel and clay in the Abasands feed. Unfortunately, the Abasands plant was destroyed by a fire in 1945 and all records were lost. Following this setback, a pilot-scale flowsheet was developed at the Mines Branch Booth Street laboratories to separate bitumen from sand in standard ore-dressing equipment, followed by upgrading by hydrogenation and catalytic cracking to produce commercial-specification fuels. The Fuels Division staff presented the comprehensive results at the Athabasca Oil Sands Conference in Edmonton in 1951.
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