No Silos Here: Syncrude uses collaborative research to solve oil sands challenges

Understanding the science behind oil sands mining, processing and reclamation has been a decades-long commitment for Syncrude – one of Canada’s largest oil sands operators and one of only a few with a dedicated research and development facility.

Our research is not just focused on work done internally by the scientists and technologists working here. In fact, research and development is a collaborative process that often involves fundamental research activity conducted by 19 universities across Canada, and universities in eight U.S. states, China and the United Kingdom.

“The oil sands industry is relatively new compared to traditional mining and refining operations,” says Mal Carroll, Manager, Research and Development.

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.

Mal carroll

The answers to oil sands industry challenges are rarely achieved in isolation. Behind the 186 patents that grace the walls of Syncrude’s Edmonton Research and Development Centre are thousands of research papers and experiments leveraging the expertise of collaborators worldwide, both in academia and within its industry network.

Syncrude actively participates in collaborative technology development through Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance (COSIA) where 55 joint industry projects are led towards improving reclamation, tailings management and water use, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Our organization also partners with the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) to support 11 different research chairs at universities across Canada over the last 20 years, including eight at this time.

The first chair program began in 1997 with the creation of the NSERC Industrial Research Chair in Oil Sands Engineering at the University of Alberta, by Syncrude with a matching grant from NSERC. Dr. Jacob Masliyah was the program’s first chair and his team of graduate students were tasked with addressing process issues for the oil sands industry.

An early success contributed to an understanding of ideal temperatures for bitumen separation. This led to Syncrude developing hydrotransport – an industry changing technology that involved blends oil sands and water, and pipes the product to the extraction plant. The innovation led to lower water temperatures for separation and streamlined the mining process.

Many more innovations followed and over the last 20 years Syncrude has been joined by oil companies from around the world in their support of the university’s NSERC Industrial Research Chair in Oil Sands Engineering, which has become the largest program of its kind in the country.

The current chair, Dr. Zhenghe Xu says the program has expanded its mandate with the inclusion of additional partners.

“We are a centre for innovation and we provide training for highly skilled people to join the oil sands industry,” says Zhenghe.

Our advisory committee meets four times a year to discuss ideas and get feedback. Then we encourage our graduate students to take on the relevant research.

Zhenghe xu

This process has helped bring innovations to the oil sands industry and has had a significant impact on university research programs.

Dr. Lee Barbour, is a professor in the Department of Civil and Geological Engineering at the University of Saskatchewan. He and his graduate students have worked with Syncrude to address reclamation issues for 20 years. Initially invited to look at soil salinity related to reclamation, the relationship has evolved to include research on sulphur blocks, reclamation over coke, end-pit lakes, and the design for Syncrude’s award-winning Sandhill Fen Watershed project, to name a few.

“Nearly all of our research has been tied to a particular business case or question surrounding closure,” says Lee. “That said, Syncrude has always given me the freedom to also look at more foundational science or methods development research. That balance and freedom has allowed us to look at some unique and novel approaches to some of the long-term challenges in reclamation research that were not part of Syncrude’s initial business case.”

In addition to the variety of challenges presented and the latitude researchers are given, another bonus of collaborative research with universities is the way it furthers academic careers.

Sean Sanders has seen the benefits of university collaborations from several angles – as a graduate student, a Syncrude employee, and now a University professor and head of the NSERC Industrial Research Chair in Pipeline Transport Processes.

His first contact with Syncrude was as a graduate student working on his PhD under Dr. Masliyah. He later joined the company as a research engineer working directly with graduate students on company-specific projects for eight years. Today his team is helping Syncrude understand issues related to pipeline flow, specifically oil sands hydrotransport and tailings treatment and transport. While most of the team’s work is short-term to be applied within five years, there is also foundational research to gain deeper understanding of processes.

Lee agrees there is a larger value to the relationship with industry. “I can’t overstate how meaningful it is for students to work with industry in a research capacity,” he says.

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. We couldn’t do what we do without companies like Syncrude who are committed to research and supporting student work.

Lee barbour

Syncrude provides opportunities for laboratory research on a small scale, an outdoor landscape or water bodies for reclamation studies, and access to full scale operating equipment. 

Research collaborations have advanced fundamental understanding of issues and Syncrude builds on this foundation using its own expertise and research capability to improve processes, extend equipment performance, reduce environmental impacts, and for reclamation planning. The constant evolution of technology makes the company more efficient, reliable and responsible.

For more than 50 years, Syncrude’s Research & Development team has made major contributions to the body of knowledge related to the oil sands industry thanks to its own expertise and the knowledge it seeks from others. A combination of in-house research and collaborations with North American universities and research organizations is providing the leadership the oil sands industry needs to advance technologies, improve processes, and achieve environmental commitments.

Canadian Universities:

  • University of British Columbia – Vancouver, BC
  • Simon Fraser University – Burnaby, BC
  • University of Alberta – Edmonton, AB
  • NAIT – Edmonton, AB
  • Athabasca University, Athabasca, AB
  • University of Calgary – Calgary, AB
  • University of Saskatchewan – Saskatoon, SK
  • University of Manitoba – Winnipeg, MB
  • University of Guelph – Guelph, ON
  • University of Waterloo – Waterloo, ON
  • University of Windsor – Windsor, ON
  • University of Western Ontario – London, ON
  • University of Toronto – Toronto, ON
  • Queens University – Kingston, ON
  • Carleton University – Ottawa, ON
  • Universite de Sherbrooke – Sherbrooke, QC
  • Dalhousie University – Halifax, NS
  • University of Prince Edward Island – Charlottetown, PE

United States Universities:

  • Iowa State University – Ames, IA
  • Southern Illinois University – Carbondale, IL
  • University of Utah – Salt Lake City, UT
  • Yale University – New Haven, CT
  • Carnegie Mellon University – Pittsburgh, PA
  • NYSCC at Alfred University – Alfred, NY
  • Rice University – Houston, TX
  • Villanova University – Villanova, PA

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