Plastics Research in Action: NAIT and IPL Partnership

Updated: Feb 8, 2021

In the largest applied research partnership in the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology’s (NAIT) history, the polytechnic has partnered with Inter Pipeline (IPL), a world-scale energy infrastructure company developing North America’s first integrated propane dehydrogenation and polypropylene complex, to advance the reuse and recycling of plastic in Canada and beyond.

Soon, Alberta will be the home of North America’s first integrated operations turning propane into plastic. Sounds like a big deal, right? It is. Alberta has set a goal this year to become a “global top ten producer” of petrochemicals and aspires to be the “centre of excellence for plastics recycling” in North America by 2030. In turn, transforming natural gas into plastics is seen by the Government of Alberta as one of the most important pillars to help reach these goals and provide an economic boost for the province.

Inter Pipeline’s Heartland Petrochemical Complex (HPC) will convert locally-sourced, low-cost propane into approximately 525,000 tonnes of high-value, easy-to-transport plastic annually. The recyclable plastic produced by HPC, called polypropylene, will be used to manufacture consumer packaging, textiles, automobile components, medical equipment and more. Canada is one of the top five producers of natural gas in the world, and two-thirds of that production comes out of Alberta, thus opting to recover and repurpose Alberta’s abundance of propane is a truly efficient choice. In fact, the pellets produced at HPC are also expected to have a greenhouse gas footprint that is roughly 65% lower than the global average for other polypropylene plants. A priority for Inter Pipeline is to be a safe, responsible operator and producer of quality, recyclable plastic which to them also means supporting initiatives that seek tangible solutions in plastics reuse and recycling to the benefit of Canadians.

As a result, Inter Pipeline has partnered with the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology (NAIT) in the largest applied research partnership in NAIT’s history. NAIT is a leading polytechnic dedicated to helping industry develop practical, impactful solutions to address their specific needs and challenges.

This collaboration has resulted in a $10 million, ten-year research initiative. Known as “Plastics Research in Action,” the goal is to ensure waste plastics are reused as a valuable resource in the development of other products, while reducing their environmental impact in Canada and around the world. Two exciting projects under this initiative are currently underway leveraging the expertise of NAIT researchers and a keen team of students. The first project aims to develop methods to identify, quantify and monitor microplastics—small plastic particles less than 5 millimetres long—in freshwater and river sediments found in the North Saskatchewan River.

Currently, there are no standardized and validated methods for separating microplastics from sediment samples, which leaves gaps in the knowledge of the types and sizes of microplastics in freshwater, their occurrence, and their impact on the environment. The second project is testing the blending of post-consumer plastics into asphalts for the Alberta marketplace. Technologies that convert plastic waste to a wax product for blending into asphalt have shown favourable results when applied to roadways in warmer climates.

Thankfully, expansive health and safety controls has meant that COVID-19 has not slowed down HPC’s construction. As of November 2020, various components of the complex are reaching milestone stages. After nearly three years of continuous construction, with more than 3,000 construction workers on location, HPC is on track to be in service by early 2022.

Large-scale collaborative efforts such as “Plastics Research in Action” bring Canada towards a circular economy, while also supporting a license to operate for new innovative industry projects which are ushering in the next wave of economic prosperity through job creation. With these types of partnerships, Canada will continue to act as a model for other nations.


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