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Home > Innovation and New Technology > Research and Technology > Oil Sands > Karl Clark Process

Research and Technology

"The Karl Clark Process"

Karl Clark's Oil Sands SeparatorThe Athabasca oil sands first reached public attention in the late 1700s, when fur traders noticed heavy oil seeping from riverbanks. By the late 1890s, the federal government began sponsoring investigations into the energy potential of the oil sands. But despite the fact that their existence has been known for centuries, oil sands are a relative newcomer to Canada's energy scene. This situation has less to do with the lack of interest than the lack of a workable technology.

With an average composition of 83.3 percent carbon and 10.5 percent hydrogen, bitumen is too thick in its natural state to flow like conventional oil. In addition, the molasses-like bitumen is locked in the sand. The trick was to find a reliable and economical way to retrieve the oil.

Enter Dr. Karl Clark, a chemist with the Alberta Research Council. In 1929, Clark patented a hot water and caustic soda mixture for the extraction of bitumen form oil sands. He fed the mined oil sands into a large rotating drum, then mixed them under high temperatures with steam, hot water and caustic soda to separate sand and bitumen. The resulting liquid could then be processed further and upgraded into synthetic crude oil.

The Clark invention single-handedly created a new industry in Alberta—on which would soon grow to be enormous in scope. The 3 oil sands deposits—Athabasca, Cold Lake and Peace River—cover 77,000 square kilometers and together contain two-thirds of the world's bitumen. The economic implications of Clark's discovery are equally staggering. Today's oil sands operations employ 8,500 people, and oil sands plants spend over $1.8 billion annually on goods, services and salaries. Experts point out that with each new billion dollars of capital investment in the oil sands projects, there is a 1.5 billion dollar boost to the Gross National Product.

Simpson, Bob.  "10 Developments that revolutionized what we do and how we do it",  Alberta Venture, (October 1997), 31-40. 
With permission from the Alberta Venture.

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