Masliyah, Dr. Jacob H.

2008 Winner: Outstanding Leadership In Alberta Technology

For The Excitement Of Discovery

Dr. Jacob Masliyah clearly loves his work. When he’s asked what motivates him to work in oil sands research, he responds with great enthusiasm.

“For the fun of it. Most of us in science and engineering are puzzle solvers,” he explains. “It’s the excitement of discovery or being able to explain a phenomenon. It’s also the excitement of doing something good for society and knowing you are useful.”

Improving Bitumen Recovery

Dr. Masliyah, professor, Chemical and Materials Engineering, University of Alberta, has used his abundant enthusiasm and his strength in theoretical applications to improve recovery of bitumen from the oil sands. He holds the NSERC Industrial Research Chair in Oil Sands Engineering and the Canada Research Chair in the same field.

When Dr. Masliyah, an officer of the Order of Canada, first came to Alberta from Saskatchewan in 1977 he hadn’t heard of the oil sands. Now he is credited with leading his team to become the world’s leading centre of bitumen extraction research, work that is critical to the oil sands industry’s ability to optimize recovery of oil while reducing environmental impact.

The Art of Oil Sands Extraction

Dr. Masliyah combined his expertise in fluid particle dynamics with research into surface dynamics between solid clay particles and bitumen particles to reveal the true nature of bitumen interactions with solids and water for different processes. His research advanced the understanding of the phenomenon, and was applied to guide operating efforts towards improved results in the fields of extraction, froth treatment and tailings. He explains that his work put the “art of oil sands extraction” on firm scientific footing, the only way the process can be improved.

“From my point of view, if we improve the recovery of bitumen from the oil sands, we make better use of the resource,” he explains. “We are the guardians of the resource and we are beholden to improve the process of extraction to lower the negative impact of oil sands operations through emissions control, water usage, among other impacts.”

Dr. Masliyah is also credited with establishing unique academia-industry partnerships, based on research collaborations and technology development and the transfer of complex knowledge from the classroom into the field and vice versa. He says industry’s support and long-term funding of his team’s research is testimony of its willingness to embrace good science to improve operations. It also improves business results.

Among his most cherished roles is mentor and teacher, both to his university students and to practitioners in the field. Dr. Masliyah attributes collaboration with students inside and out of the lab to the success of his research and its practical applications.