2013 Winner: Innovation In Oil Sands Research Sponsored By Syncrude Canada Ltd.
Thirty years ago Dr. Randy Mikula was among the pioneers who were researching how to improve oil sands technology. That research is growing exponentially – and producing results. Today industry is reaping the rewards and the environment is also better protected.
“We’ve come literally from research in beakers, test tubes and microscopes a decade ago to seeing the technology applied on a 500,000-ton-per-day scale,” Dr. Mikula says.
His road to working in the oil sands was circuitous, beginning with a PhD in atomic physics. In 1981 he turned down a job at Los Alamos to work with the Energy Mines and Resources, a decision he anguished over for years.
“The intellectual challenge of working in the oil sands is the same or greater than the work I would have done at Los Alamos,” he now admits. “And I am doing something that has purposeful outcomes and benefits to society.”
Dr. Mikula’s effective collaborations with industry have helped move early-day laboratory concepts to commercialization, saving oil sands companies millions of dollars and helping improve environmental performance. Two years ago Dr. Mikula left his longtime position with Natural Resources Canada to found Kalium Research Inc. where he continues his work.
A longtime champion for the commercialization of the centrifuge process for fluid fine tailings from the oil sands, he’s seeing that work come to fruition. The technology is in commercial-scale trials to be implemented commercially at Syncrude in 2015.
Dr. Mikula’s greatest satisfaction comes from his outreach programs that he brings to the general public and school children. He makes an effort to explain the environmental challenges facing the industry and the industry response to those challenges.
Dr. Mikula is a strong advocate for the responsible development of the oil sands. As technical chairman of the Fine Tailings Fundamentals Consortium (FTFC), he helped to redirect some of the research towards exploring solutions to the fine tailings accumulation challenges facing the oil sands industry.
“The tag line on my business card says ‘responsible development of oil sands resources’,” he says. “A lot of the work I do is directly related to responsible development.” Much of Dr. Mikula’s outreach aims to teach people about the technological progress made in oil sands extraction methods.
“We’ve made extensive advances in understanding oil sands tailings behavior,” he says. “My experience is that the general public and many people in industry have no idea how technical the oil sands is and how fundamental science comes into play.” Dr. Mikula promotes Canadian extraction expertise with an eye to exporting it to oil sands deposits around the world.
“Canada is on the leading edge of oil sands development. Our technology will be the future of the industry,” he says. “Clearly we need the hydrocarbon resource. And if it can be developed in a responsible manner, it will benefit Alberta, Canada and the world. I like to think I’m playing a small role in doing that.”