Karl Clark: Petrochemical
Most of you are familiar with superheroes like Spiderman, Superman, and Iron Man, but have you ever heard of Karl Clark? Dr. Karl Clark is a chemistry superhero! His special power was that he was able to remove oil from tar sand by using a mixture of hot water and caustic soda (not soda pop). This was special because, in 1925, oil sands workers in Alberta were looking for a way to separate the oil from the sand. The Alberta government gave Karl Clark money to continue his important research.
Very few individuals were as committed to their chosen profession as Karl Clark was. His focus and drive, as opposed to luck, led him to discover the hot water method of separating oil from oilsands, a process of provincial and international significance.
Karl Clark was born in 1888, in Georgtown, Ontario. At school, Karl did not appear to be destined for scholarship: his high school grades were unremarkable, save for his math and chemistry scores, which were marginally above average. At one time, Karl asked his father if he could drop out of school, but was told to finish and then he could do anything he wanted. Sound familiar?
After he finished High School, Clark attended Harbord Collegiate Institute in Toronto from 1900-1904. By 1910, he had earned a Bachelor of Arts degree from McMaster University. He remained in Hamilton until 1912, when he was awarded a Master’s degree in chemistry. By 1915, Clark had graduated with a PhD, also in chemistry, from the University of Illinois.
Upon graduating, Clark went on to work for the Canadian Geological Survey, Mining Department in Ottawa. It was during this time that Karl started a family, marrying Dora Anne Wolverton. The two had four children—Frances, Mary, Malcolm and Nancy.
In 1920, Clark left the Canadian Geological Survey for a position with the newly established Research Council of Alberta. He and his family moved to Alberta where he quickly and enthusiastically took up researching the Athabasca oilsands.
From 1920 and through the 1940s, Clark’s work with the Research Council of Alberta and the University of Alberta was seriously limited by a lack of funding. However, he managed to keep his research alive, discovering numerous ways to improve oilsands extraction facilities. It was 1929 when he received the patent for the hot water extraction process for separating oil from oilsands. In 1949, a small-scale oil extraction plant was opened at Bitumount, near Fort McMurray. Only operational for a year or so, the plant has since been designated a provincial historic site.
If you would like to read some of the diary entries that Karl wrote, you can view them here: Karl Clark's Diary Excerpts.
For more information on the method for separating bituminous sands please click the following link: Method for Separating Bituminous Sands
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