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Home > History of Development > Scientific Heroes > Karl Clark

Alberta's Scientific Heroes

Following the Vision

…. applying scientific research to oil sands and hydrocarbon recovery for sixty years.

Six decades have passed since Dr. Karl Clark, the first professional employee of the Alberta Research Council, sought patent protection for his novel hot water process of separating bitumen from oil sands.

In these days, with residents of a fledgling province clamoring for more and better roads, the focus was on the use of bitumen as a paving material. But even then, there was a sense of the enormous potential of the "bituminous" sand as an energy source as well.

The year was 1928—and at that point, Dr. Clark had already spent seven years on laboratory scale investigations of his bitumen extraction technology. Both he and his government sponsors were certain it would work.

Today, scientists note the secret of the Clark process lay, not in its complexity, but in its very simplicity and effectiveness—attributes which have since sent the technology adopted by the two commercial oil sands operations in northern Alberta's vast Athabasca Oil Sands.

Thus, when the patent was awarded in 1929, the implications were twofold. On one hand, it marked the successful culmination of one phase of unusually dedicated oil sands research. On the other, it heralded a new era of scientific investigation related to the province's oil sands and heavy oil resources, which continues to this day.

From the outset, continuous provincial support was aimed at making the hot water process commercially viable. In 1930, that commitment saw the Research Council operate a pilot plant on the Clearwater River near Fort McMurray. In 1948, it led to a demonstration of the Clark hot water process at Bitumount on the banks of the Athabasca River—a valuable exercise which yielded the proof industry had been waiting for. It was clear the hot water process would work under actual operating conditions. The next step was commercial development!

Unfortunately, technology advances are not always accompanied by ideal economic conditions. This was the case with oil sands development in Alberta and it was to be 19 years before the first commercial pants began operations at Tar Island. Built and operated by Sun Oil, this undertaking would be followed a little later by a second operation—the Syncrude Canada Ltd. Plant at Mildred Lake.

Both oil sand mining operations, which use extraction processes based on Clark's hot water separation technology, now produce a good percentage of Canada's oil. 

Following the Vision. Celebrating 60 Years of Successful Oil Sands Research.  With permission from the
Alberta Research Council.

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