Collectively, Canada’s oil sands are the third-largest reserve of crude oil in the world, and they are critical to our nation’s energy future.

It’s essential that Canada’s oil sands operators bring their science A-game to the table when exercising this resource. Understanding the science behind oil sands mining — and the specific challenges of extraction, tailings (waste and byproduct) management, and land reclamation — has been a decades-long undertaking for these operators.

“The oil sands industry is relatively new compared to traditional mining and refining operations,” says Mal Carroll, Manager, Research and Development at Syncrude, one of Canada’s largest oil sands operators. “It has its own unique challenges, and solutions have to be invented here or adapted from other industries. The fundamental research that is conducted by our external partners is important for our understanding of complex issues.”

Syncrude’s dedicated research and development facility is one of just a few in the industry, and their external collaborators include 19 universities across Canada, as well as universities in the United States, China, and the United Kingdom. Syncrude is also an active participant in Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance (COSIA) and its research programs. These partnerships are vital because solutions to oil sands industry challenges are rarely realized in isolation. Behind the 186 patents that grace the walls of Syncrude’s Edmonton Research Centre are thousands of research papers and experiments leveraging the expertise of academic and industry collaborators.

Collaborators like Dr. Lee Barbour of the University of Saskatchewan, whose team of graduate students has been working with Syncrude to address land reclamation issues for 20 years, including working on the design of the award-winning Sandhill Fen Watershed project. Or like Dr. Sean Sanders of the University of Alberta, whose team is helping Syncrude understand vital issues related to pipeline flow, specifically hydrotransport and tailings treatment.

Industry-driven research, society-wide rewards

This collaboration benefits not only operators but also students, researchers, and Canadians as a whole. “I can’t overstate how meaningful it is for students to work with industry in a research capacity,” says Dr. Sanders. “Students not only contribute to the solution of a real life issue, they see purpose in their work and they know it makes a difference.”

At the heart of it all is the understanding that solving big challenges requires broad coalitions and diverse perspectives. By working seamlessly with external collaborators, oil sands operators like Syncrude are advancing the science of oil extraction, land reclamation, and environmental protection for the welfare of all. It’s good science, it’s good citizenship, and it’s good business.