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$15M competition challenges teams to cut costs of Alberta-made carbon fibre

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More than $15 million has been awarded to projects aimed at cutting the costs of creating versatile, high-value carbon fibre from Alberta bitumen.

Wednesday, five teams were announced as the winners of phase three of the Carbon Fibre Grand Challenge, an initiative by Alberta Innovates and Emissions Reductions Canada.

Bitumen is a heavy oil extracted from Alberta's oil sands. Currently, around 90 per cent of that bitumen is used for fuels, like gasoline and diesel.

It can also be used to make carbon fibre, a strong, lightweight material used for products including auto parts, plastics, building materials, and protective clothing and sporting materials.

Bryan Helfenbaum with Alberta Innovates said the competition was designed to find new ways of making bitumen into fibre. A focus on fibre, he added, would reduce emissions and protect the value of Alberta's oil sands as Canada looks toward a greener future.

"There is debate about the longevity of transportation fuels as we move towards an electrified society," Helfenbaum said. "This idea of moving towards materials gives longevity to the opportunity, it increases the value of what we're making because materials are worth far more than the fuels are worth."

The winning projects are all located in Western Canada and include the Edmonton-based Thread Innovations. It will use its $4-million award to take its carbon fibre manufacturing process from the lab to a pre-commercial scale.

Theo Zunich, Thread Innovations vice president, said his team wants to make the fibre available enough to be used by other industries in place of steel, wood, aluminum and plastic.

"Right now, carbon fibre is an under-utilized product because it's too costly, it's too emissions intensive and it's difficult to get reliable supply. We can solve all three of those problems," Zunich said.

Current demand for carbon fibre is restricted by its high cost, and the competition mandates that teams must be able to cut the cost of the produced fibre by 50 per cent.

The five winners will have 36 months to complete their projects using funding from Alberta Innovates and Emissions Reductions Alberta (ERA).

CEO of Alberta Innovates Laura Kilcrease said carbon fibre is a promising new opportunity for the province's energy industry.

"As we transition away from burning bitumen as a fuel, Alberta is well positioned to lead this next frontier," she said. "We’re proud to be a driving force behind this novel technology and we can’t wait to see what comes next."

Alberta Innovates launched the $26-million Carbon Fibre Grand Challenge in 2020. At that time, the organization estimated that carbon fibre production could double or triple Alberta's oil sand revenue over the next 15 years. 

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