Grey Room

More Liquid than Liquid: Solid-Phase Bitumen and Its Forms

Hannah Tollefson, Darin Barney

Suncor Energy. Raw oil-sands bitumen, 2010.


In apparently unrelated developments in 2017, two Canadian firms announced the invention of techniques for transforming bitumen into solid, self-contained units. For several years prior to this, a third Canadian inventor had also been working on a process for solidifying bitumen, an extremely viscous hydrocarbon abundant in the Athabasca region of western Canada, where it is both a celebrated source of resource wealth and a demonized source of unsustainable fossil-fuel emissions contributing to global warming. The oil sands mined in this region are about 5 percent water, 10 percent bitumen, and 85 percent other mineral matter and are firm enough to hold in your hand. Before bitumen can be commodified, it must be extracted from the ground, separated from the sands, and, typically, diluted for transportation to refineries via pipeline. Both state and industry in Canada have promoted the transportation of bitumen (from its land-locked points of origin to ports at tidewater) as a national economic imperative. Those engaged in the struggle over fossil fuel extraction and climate change have presented stopping this transportation as a global survival imperative. Pipelines are a medium of this contention. Capitalists and state actors hoping to exploit bituminous sands for all they are worth want to expand the pipeline infrastructure that transports their commodity to market. Environmentalists and other activists strenuously work to prevent the construction of new and expanded pipeline infrastructure as a way to ensure that hydrocarbons that intensively emit greenhouse gases remain in the ground.

As the Canadian Encyclopedia notes, “One of the easiest ways to understand bitumen is to compare it to its cousin, conventional crude oil. Whereas conventional crude oil flows freely, bitumen does not. At room temperature it looks like cold molasses, and must be either heated or diluted before it flows.” We agree. Understanding bitumen requires attention to the material conditions of its communication.