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The Transportation of Coal Through Pipeline

Miners, Bankhead, Alberta circa 1912 Coal mining has been a sector of industry in Alberta for over a century. Throughout the years, one of the industry’s key challenges has been to overcome the cost of transportation—because coal is solid, it costspatent record for this invention more to transport than liquid products like oil, which can be moved through pipelines. Coal needs to be shipped by trains or in trucks, an operation that tends to be more expensive.

Researchers in Alberta have been working on the transportation of solids by pipeline for decades—it had been conceived that goods such as coal, sulphur, mineral ores and even grains could be moved by pipeline using oil or water.

Initally, the majority of coal in Alberta was transported over long distances by rail.In the early 1960s, the Alberta Research Council (ARC), in cooperation with energy companies interested in low-cost transportation, decided to investigate the concept further. These efforts resulted in several patents being filed. Among these was a process in which the solid was mixed with a liquid to form a slurry, such as coal in oil. Once the slurry was formed, it would be sent down the pipeline to its destination, where the components would be separated. The advantage sought in this case was to use a liquid medium (oil) that could be used as a commodity, rather than simply wasted, like water.

Another method placed the solid material into a capsule, and then sent the capsule down the pipeline. On March 18, 1965, the Edmonton Journal reported testing on this pipelining of solids by the ARC, in conjunction with Interprovincial Pile Line Company Limited. Researchers sent a 514-pound steel capsule a distance of 109 miles through a 20-inch crude oil pipeline. The steel capsule contained a radioactive isotope, and its progress was tracked at 54 checkpoints between Edmonton and Hardisty. The trip took 56 hours, moving over hills and through valleys, arriving at its destination in good condition. The experiment was deemed a complete success.

Coal MineIn 1967, the ARC conducted a further solids pipeline test on the outskirts of southern Edmonton. It consisted of a 3500-foot loop of four-inch pipeline. The project included an 800-foot section elevated by scaffolding to a height of 37 feet. The incline and decline created was to provide data on up and downward grades on capsules going through the pipeline. The progress of the capsules was traced again, this time using photoelectric cells in the pipe. The project was funded by a combination of government and private financing.

Among the many researchers who had contributed over the years to the challenge of moving solids through pipeline was prominent Alberta research scientist, Norbert Berkowitz. Berkowitz and the ARC received numerous related patents, including three that focused on bypass systems for transporting pipelined solid bodies around pumps. They addressed the fact that solids could not pass through conventional pumps that were built along pipelines to keep the liquid flowing.

Research on transporting solids by pipeline at the ARC tapered off in the 1970s, and the method of transportation for coal has yet to become widespread in the industry, as it has not overcome logistical and financial issues. In the case of the coal/oil slurry, for instance, it was found that up to five percent of the oil was lost in the coal after separation at the end of the pipeline. The biggest obstacle overall, however, has been large start-up costs. These challenges endure, and research by several organizations to make this method of transportation feasible continues.

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