NSERC Industrial Research Chair Builds for the Future

PHOTO CREDIT: Hope Walls Photography

The future of the oil sands industry relies on improving environmental performance. Perhaps equally important is the future generation of great minds who will be required to carry today’s efforts forward.

The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC)—which is committed to making Canada “a country of discoverers and innovators for the benefit of all citizens”—brings industry and universities together, so engineering students can apply the concepts they learn in real life situations, helping to build on the country’s industrial excellence for tomorrow. Its Industrial Research Chair program puts some of the country’s best researchers in charge of NSERC’s major research endeavours of interest to industry.

Dr. Ward Wilson, a University of Alberta engineering professor and renowned expert in advanced mine waste management, was appointed as the NSERC/COSIA Industrial Research Chair in Oil Sands Tailings Geotechnique in 2014. Alberta Innovates is also a funder and partner in the Chair.

Now at the halfway point of the five-year term, he and his team of researchers are working on 19 projects, each directed at improving tailings management. The projects cover four themes: tailings and oil sands deposition, dewatering tailings, assessing and improving oil sands deposition, and the long-term behaviour of fine fluid tailings. While the research will have long-term impact on how tailings can be managed and the technologies developed to help accelerate reclamation, it is the opportunity to work with some of the university’s brightest students that means the most to Ward.

“In all of the years I’ve engaged in universities, I’ve never had the pleasure of such a successful research program,” says Ward. “I’ve been able to recruit outstanding students at all levels, Canadian and international. I am working with such high-caliber students, who’ve won NSERC awards and scholarships, and are committed to the work in a way that is very impressive.”

With seven students currently engaged in the program, and four more set to join, the program brings together academics at all levels, from PhD to Masters to post-doctorates. It also includes a remarkable set of active, external collaborators, who bring expertise from all areas of environmental sciences, mechanical engineering, technology development and tailings management (including Dr. Paul Simms, featured in this issue’s innovator profile.) Dr. Nicholas Beier, an assistant professor in Geoenvironmental Engineering, also at the University of Alberta, joined at the end of last year, as part of the program’s plans to involve new faculty in its major research programs.

“As we move into the second half, we are on schedule with all the projects,” says Nicholas. “We’re recruiting another batch of students as a few of the current group are about to defend or have already defended their theses. It means a lot that these students get the chance to work right on operational oil sands sites, and engage directly with industry experts in the field.”

The researchers meet with members of COSIA’s Tailings Environmental Priority Area regularly, including most recently in Calgary at the beginning of October, to present the latest results and answer questions. There are also frequent opportunities for project-by-project interaction.

“Investment in research and innovation like this is critical as the industry moves forward to face its challenges,” said Joy Romero, Canadian Natural’s vice president, Technology and Innovation, at a celebration announcing the most recent NSERC Industrial Research Chair appointees in April. “To remain competitive and ensure a sustainable industry that meets Canada’s and the world’s energy needs for the long-term, we need to continue to build capacity for tomorrow.”