Clark, Dr. Karl A.

2005 Winner: ASTech Special Award

Revolutionary Oil Sands Extraction Process Lay The Foundation For Today’s Oil Industry

Karl Clark, a pioneer of oil sands research, laid the foundation for Alberta’s booming oil sands industry. Clark was born on October 20, 1888, in Georgetown, Ontario. He earned his Bachelor and Master’s degree from McMaster University and his Doctorate in Chemistry from the University of Illinois.

A renowned chemist, Clark joined the Alberta Research Council in 1921. His oil sands research first focused on using oil sands as a road paving material, but then he switched to researching how to use it as a fuel source. Early in his career, Clark was intent on finding a way to separate oil from oil sands.

Revolutionary Process

Within a few years he discovered a hot-water extraction process, which was patented in 1929. By mixing oil sands, hot water and caustic soda into an apparatus that resembled an old-fashioned washing machine, Clark found the first commercially viable separation method. Before Clark’s discovery, the 175 billion barrels of oil sands in Athabasca, Cold Lake and Peace River were essentially worthless as a fuel source. Clark’s hot water separation process made it possible to produce the oil sands that were close enough to the surface to be pit mined.

Over his career Clark worked on perfecting his separation method. His efforts paid off shortly before his death in 1966 when Great Canadian Oil Sands (now Suncor Energy Inc.) started building a large-scale oil sands plant in Fort McMurray. When it opened in 1967, it produced 45,000 barrels of oil a day. Today, companies such as Syncrude Canada, Suncor Energy Inc. and Shell Canada produce 465,000 barrels of oil from surface mines a year, and they still use Clark’s separation method, which has changed very little since his patent in 1929.

Continued Impact

Without Clark’s discovery and his dedication to perfecting it for commercial use, Alberta’s oil industry might look very different today. The multi-billion oil sands industry accounts for approximately 31 per cent of Canada’s total oil production. By 2010, it is expected to account for more than 60 per cent of Western Canada’s production. Karl Clark is internationally recognized for his oil sands research. He was named one of 100 Edmontonians of the Century for the city’s centennial and his experimental oil sands extraction facilities near Fort McMurray are designated as an Alberta Historic Site. Today, Alberta Research Council’s corporate head offices reside at the address (250 Karl Clark Road) named for the researcher that unlocked the potential of the tar sands.