Alberta's capital is starting to flex its oilsands muscles.

Long known as the service centre for the Fort McMurray region's oilsands production, Edmonton is now gaining prominence as a key player in the sector.

While oilsands investments during the next decade are projected to easily exceed $100 billion, only a fraction is expected to be spent in the Fort McMurray area.

According to Edmonton Economic Development Corp. (EEDC), about 70 to 80 per cent of that money will be spent in the greater Edmonton area, where upward of 10 upgraders - to convert the heavy crude or bitumen into synthetic oil - will be built.

Photo courtesy of All Terrain Road
All Terrain Road has developed lightweight road and rig mats that one of its crews installs.

"There could be anywhere from 10 to 12 upgraders built in the Fort Saskatchewan and Redwater region, including the Industrial Heartland, which is just north of Edmonton and goes to Redwater," says Amanda Babichuk, marketing manager for the U.S. market in EEDC's business-attraction division. "It's presenting an influx of investment the likes of which this city has never seen before."

Businesses - oilsands and non-oilsands related - now have Edmonton on their radar screens.

"Companies are knocking on Edmonton's door, not just for relocation opportunities, but to supply here - they're looking for ways they can partner with local industry," says Babichuk. "Edmonton is now definitely the logistics and transportation hub for the oilsands."

Part of its growing oilsands role has seen the city become the new home to the annual Oil Sands Trade Show and Conference, which was held in Fort McMurray until last month when the switch was made to Edmonton.

"Edmonton is really where so much of the work is being done and so much of the research is being done here, so this makes perfect logical sense to have the event hosted here," says Wes Scott, commercial and business development director, energy sector (North America), for DMG World Media, which puts on the show.

"We made the decision last February that we would move the event from Fort McMurray, where it's always been, into Edmonton because we were having a number of facility issues because they're under construction. What it has allowed us to do is to double the size of the event, with the number of exhibitors that we could take on as well as even the visitor base because we have so many more hotel rooms, better access to an international airport and a shorter commute (for oil industry executives) from Calgary," says Scott.

That decision is now permanent and gives Edmonton another major drawing card to bring business travellers into town.

"What we'll do is we'll return to Fort McMurray with four smaller events that will be conference-based and designed to help do training for local professionals in Fort McMurray," adds Scott.

The 2007 edition of the oilsands show, which was held at Edmonton's Northlands AgriCom in mid-September, drew more than 8,000 visitors, more than double the record of 3,500 set last year in Fort McMurray. Further, there were more than 600 exhibiting companies at the 2007 edition and that number is expected to be eclipsed in 2008.

"We can already tell you that for 2008 we have reserved enough new exhibit space to take on another 300 exhibitors, which will then make it the second-largest oil show in Canada," says Scott. Right now, it's the third largest in Canada and it is the largest gathering of oilsands professionals in the world."

Meanwhile, Edmonton is further set to capitalize on its oilsands drawing power. Next year, it will play host to the World Heavy Oil Congress, described as the premier international technical and business conference and exhibition specializing in the heavy oil industry.

But it was at the 2007 event where a number of innovations were rolled out.

The NanoSteel Co., based in Providence, R.I., says interest is strong for the products it brought to the tradeshow.

"This is the second year we've been to the oilsands show. Last year, we were just there to introduce NanoSteel. No one really knew who we were and the products applicable to the oilsands only came out in 2006," says company president and CEO Dave Paratore. "This year, interest is growing. We are currently undergoing numerous lab qualifications, which is understandable.

"The tarsands industry leaders have extremely large investments in capital equipment, which they can't take risks with. We would love it to go faster, but we respect that - the process of qualifying the material."

Paratore says his company is trying to redefine steel, creating unique alloy products with nano-sized grains. Used as thin or thick coatings, depending on the product, these nanostructured materials are designed to make it harder for wear and/or corrosion to start. The company's product line is focused on non-structural steel.

Oilsands companies would use the thick coatings, known as weld overlay, to protect a surface that would otherwise wear out. The product can be applied to large sheets of steel and bent into shape to cover the huge buckets used in digging, which would be one example of its application.

While there are other products in the marketplace that work on a similar concept, Paratore says NanoSteel fills a market void.

"This could be a huge market for NanoSteel and we really do believe we have the right product to help the companies in the tarsands. Our products are excellent in abrasion protection and that's certainly one of the largest wear sources in the tarsands. Our materials do really well in an abrasion environment," says Paratore.

"The technology itself is really still in its infancy. The market opportunity is to redefine steel, to bring steel back to places it hasn't been for awhile. That's the beauty of working with steel, it's fully recyclable and people are familiar with it. We believe we are utilizing nanotechnology as it was originally envisioned - to literally redefine existing products."

Another U.S. company, Blasch Precision Ceramics of Albany, N.Y., says it, too, found the show worthwhile.

"It was definitely positive and we felt we reached the decision-makers we needed to reach in terms of selling products or applications," says Mickey Lavicska, Blasch's director of sales and marketing, about its first appearance at the show.

"Much of what we do ... is to replace metal components with ceramic components for better performance and longer wear," says Lavicska, who adds that while their markets already include the petrochemical industry, Blasch is new to the oilsands sector.

Meanwhile, another new product that could be on the road to success is from an Edmonton-based company.

The rapid installation, high performance, lightweight road and rig mats for sensitive environments and impassable terrain were received well, says Craig Wronko, executive vice-president of All Terrain Road.

"Because we're new and the technology is new, they're saying that they're interested, but it's a conservative industry. We are an expensive mat, but we'll last between 10 to 20 years.

"They need to get into areas very quickly or there might be environmental issues," says Wronko, who noted that a lot of the people who stopped by the booth were just kicking tires. "They're waiting for us to be able to manufacture the volume to service what their needs are."

All Terrain has been to previous editions of the oilsands show but is only just starting to manufacture the advanced composite mat system, which can be linked together to form temporary roads or pathways. The mats can also be used in aviation for extension of runways, as helicopter landing pads, or in the agricultural and entertainment industries.

An added selling point, says Wronko, is that more mats can be transported on one trailer unit than existing wood, steel or rubber mats. With its first orders expected to go out in early November, All Terrain says it should be manufacturing at full capacity by January.

(Laura Severs can be reached at laura@businessedge.ca)