Sept/Oct 2012

Sidney Ells

Pioneer of oil sands research

By Correy Baldwin

When World War I began in 1914, a young mining engineer at the Geological Survey of Canada (GSC) was informed that, due to the importance of his current work, he would not be allowed to enlist in the army. Sidney Ells had been overseeing a study of the Athabasca oil sands, and the Canadian government was on the hunt for an oil supply to sustain the war effort.

A year earlier, Ells ex­­plored the Athabasca re­gion to assess the potential of the oil sands. He had set out north, up the Atha­bas­ca River from Athabasca Land­­ing, with a crew of three and a Native guide. Over the next three months they surveyed 300 kilometres of wilderness front­age along the Athabasca and its tributaries, studying 247 outcroppings and taking 200 core samples using hand augers.

In September, a 22-man crew arrived to help pack and load the nine tonnes of core samples and haul them back upstream. The return trip was horrendously difficult, due in part to the 14 sets of rapids along that stretch of river. It took 23 days, with the men often working for 20 straight hours. By the time Ells arrived at Athabasca Landing, he was short 12 of his men – three had been injured and five had simply walked away.

But for Ells, the effort had been worth it. He sent his samples to Ottawa and wrote a glowing report about what he had found. The oil sands, he said, were ripe for large-scale commercial development. Ells became a passionate advocate for oil sands research and ensured it became a priority for the GSC.

The next spring, entrepreneurs William Herron and Archibald Dingman discovered oil at Turner Valley, Alberta, thus taking pressure, and some interest, off the oil sands. But this did not last long. By August, Canada had joined Britain at war with Germany, and the Allies needed all the oil they could get.

Ells stepped up his research and experiments to separate the bitumen. He took his work to the modern Mellon Institute of Industrial Research in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where he and other engineers and scientists came up with a separation process using hot water combined with acidic or alkaline reagents to strip the bitumen off the finer particles. It was the beginning of the process still in use today.

Ells’ work was uninterrupted until April 1917, when he was finally sent to the war. After receiving news of his upcoming de­part­ure, he had little time to compile his research findings and quickly wrote a sprawling, ­­two-volume report.

Ells did not serve on the front lines but as an engineering instructor at the Khaki University, an educational service the Canadian Army set up overseas to teach demobilizing troops.

Karl Clark, a young GSC engineer, reviewed and evaluated Ells’ work while he was away. Clark waded through Ells’ unwieldy report and unorganized notes, and criticized them heavily. They were, he said, a hopeless mess. Ells was removed from the project, and the portfolio was given to Clark. Ells returned from the war to find his research discredited, and his work taken over.

After the war, oil sands research was consolidated at the University of Alberta, whose president, Dr. Henry Tory, had also organized Khaki University. Tory fought to oversee oil sands research, and when the Canadian government recommended Ells head up the research, Tory refused, and instead offered the position to Clark. The GSC engineer picked up the mantle and saw oil sands research through another important stage. Ells, however, never worked on the project again.

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