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Washing Out the Sand

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Fort McMurray oil sands

While searching for the non-existent basement oil was underway, other efforts were focused on mining Athabasca's oil sands and seeking a way to extract the bitumen, most commonly with the use of hot water. Eighty-seven years of testing and experiments preceded Great Canadian Oil Sands' use of hot water to wash away the sand from the bitumen. When Geological Survey of Canada geologist Robert Bell looked at the bitumen oozing from the banks of the Athabasca River, he shipped samples of the sands to Ottawa where G. Christian Hoffmann, the GSC's chemist and metallurgist, conducted experiments to examine the possibilities. Hoffmann thought the sands were "admirably adapted . . . for asphalting purposes" with "very slight treatment" and without the need to separate the sand and bitumen. They were, he wrote, suitable for "construction of roads, footpaths, court­yards, and for asphalting the floors of granaries, basements of warehouses . . . and as a roofing material."'9

Should anyone want to bother separating the bitumen, however, Hoffmann concluded that this would be a simple matter. It could, he wrote, "be effected by simply boiling or macerating the material with hot water, when the bitu­minous matter entering into fusion will rise as scum to the surface and may be removed by skimmers, whilst the sand falls to the bottom of the vessel." That's not far off from the basic approach used in today's multi-billion-dollar oil sands plants, albeit with enormous refinements to the process.

Unfortunately, Hoffmann's macerating didn't remove quite all of the most minute particles of sand. The bitumen he extracted by this method still con­tained 50.1 percent very fine sand. It would take a little more than "simply boiling" to completely remove it.

Hoffmann added that, given greater quantities than his few samples, the bitumen might be distilled and "advantageously employed as a crude materi­al for the manufacture of illuminating and lubricating oils and paraffin." This was still the age of coal oil lamps.

Other government-funded researchers seeking ways to extract the bitu­men would follow in Hoffmann's footsteps, while there were more than 30 pri­vate sector attempts, using hot water, steam, fire, solvents, and even microbes, that were supposed to separate the bitumen by eating it.

Sidney Clarke Ells, an engineer with the federal Department of Mines, in 1913 set out for Fort McMurray to survey the prospects of commercial pro­duction, a task to which he devoted the next 32 years. It was pioneering under conditions as difficult as any fur trader ever faced-travelling by foot with a 70-pound backpack the 250 miles over trackless muskeg and forest between Edmonton and Fort McMurray; camping out under northern stars at temper­atures as low as
-40°C; hauling on a tracking line 20 hours a day to help pull barges up the Athabasca River.

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