McMaster receives nearly $2.2-million for oil sands research

Researchers at McMaster University have received nearly $2.2-million to examine important environmental processes in Alberta’s oil sands, which could help speed up the land reclamation process for one of Canada’s largest oil companies.

The project team, led by Lesley Warren, a professor in the School of Geography & Earth Sciences at McMaster, was recruited by Syncrude Canada Ltd. to investigate bacterial sulfur reactions occurring in its composite tailings. Composite tailings are the byproduct of the oil sand extraction process. They are high in alkalinity and salinity, and extremely low in organic matter.     

Syncrude will invest more than $1.14-million over the three-year research project, with an additional $1.05-million from a Collaborative Research & Development grant from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC).

“We are examining the biogeochemistry of the composite tailings, or more specifically, the role of bacteria in sulfur cycling,” explains Warren.  “The sulfur reactions occurring in the deposits cannot be explained solely by chemical reactions, so we need to understand the whole process better and determine how bacteria are driving the reactions.”  

The research is critical to Syncrude because the company is in the process of creating a pilot 17-hectare fen wetland, as well as its 50 ha watershed, as part of oil sands reclamation of a former mine at Mildred Lake, north of Fort McMurray.  The pilot fen will be established by placing peat, as well as plant and tree material recovered from future mining areas, over composite tailings and sand. 

“Syncrude is committed to responsible development and that includes continuous improvement in our environmental performance,” said Brian Schleckser, Syncrude’s Vice President of Technical.

This research will provide vital information needed to effectively reclaim our former mine into a productive and healthy wetland that supports natural processes.

Brain schleckser

The research team will also include Brian McCarry, professor and Chair of the Department of Chemistry, and Greg Slater, associate professor in the School of Geography & Earth Sciences and up to 16 graduate and undergraduate students, post-doctoral fellows and research technicians. 

“This collaborative research project exemplifies the value of research partnerships between industry and academia,” said NSERC President Suzanne Fortier. “Dr. Warren’s fundamental research addresses a major challenge faced by Canadian oil sands operators, while also benefiting students who will be working on a project that is highly relevant to industry.”

Att. Editors: A high resolution photo of the Syncrude oil sands project north of Fort McMurraycan be found at

McMaster University, one of four Canadian universities listed among the Top 100 universities in the world, is renowned for its innovation in both learning and discovery. It has a student population of 23,000, and more than 140,000 alumni in 128 countries.

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