Sept/Oct 2009


Bringing science to an art: An Officer of the Order of Canada has spearheaded innovation in oil sands processing through cutting-edge collaborative research

By M. Kerawala and G. Winkel

Retirement does not keep Jacob Masliyah from his laboratory at the University of Alberta.

“Jacob Masliyah has … been researching the complex interactions between oil, water and sand particles to improve oil recovery from Alberta’s tar sands. Equally important, he has shared his knowledge with his students and colleagues and has fostered partnerships with industry leaders. His scientific contributions, as well as his leadership in national collaborative programs, have brought significant benefits to the Canadian oil sands industry.”

This impressive précis of a remarkable career sums up the opinion of the Governor General of Canada. It is mentioned on the citation Professor Masliyah received upon his investiture as an Officer of the Order of Canada last year.

At the dawn of an industry

The Alberta oil sands have enjoyed a rich history in the development of the mineral processing technologies that we have come to refer to simply as bitumen extraction.  Although the oil sands have attracted curiosity and commercial interest over more than 200 years, scientific inquiry into the possibility of harvesting the bitumen from them only began in the early 1920s. This early innovative research developed the foundational processes for so-called hot water bitumen extraction, providing the basis for the design of large commercial oil sands plants.

Operating experience in the relatively new oil sands application showed bitumen extraction to be a challenging process. Different grades and types of ore proved difficult to process, extraction performance could not be predicted from available measured parameters, and energy intensity and chemical treatment costs were significant. Oil sands operators recognized that a more thorough understanding of the mechanisms that drove bitumen extraction processes was required for the industry to improve overall performance.

A processing pioneer

In the 1970s, Jacob Masliyah, then a professor of chemical engineering at the University of Alberta, clearly recognized that bitumen extraction, froth treatment and tailings processes would benefit from the understanding of fundamental physical phenomenan that drove their respective behavior to previously unanticipated results and consequences.

Over the last three decades, Masliyah has done more to understand, describe, improve and advance oil sands processing than perhaps any other individual. One could, without exaggeration, say that Alberta’s oil sands industry stands on foundations that he helped lay.

Masliyah came to Canada from England in 1964 to pursue his master’s degree in chemical engineering, and later went on to earn his doctorate at the University of British Columbia in 1970. “After a few years of teaching in Saskatchewan, I came to the University of Alberta in 1977,” he recalls.

There, Masliyah met a professor who was on secondment to Syncrude, working on a research project in the oil sands industry. Studying the separation of light particles using a polymer, the professor encountered some inexplicabilities. Because of his expertise in fluid particle dynamics, Masliyah’s assistance was sought. He developed a particle model that accurately mimicked and helped explain the intriguing observations. This was the first step in what was to become Masliyah’s life’s journey.

In those days, the industry was only beginning to find its footing. “The first oil sands project run by Great Canadian Oil Sands [now Suncor], in 1967 was a mammoth operation,” recalls Masliyah. “To make the equipment run effectively at minus 40 degrees was a huge challenge. The first few years were devoted to just getting it all going. It was only after they got everything working that the oil sands companies started worrying about the processes.”

Drawn to oil sand’s research, Masliyah enlisted a team of bright minds from both academia and industry. Mentoring them through increasingly diverse and innovative investigations, he helped reveal the true nature of bitumen interactions with solids and water for different processes. He made significant and rapid progress in revealing the fundamental characteristics of the phenomena he examined. His findings have been applied to full-scale process characteristics and have guided operating efforts towards dramatically improved results.

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