Sanders, Dr. Sean

2012 Winner: Innovation In Oil Sands Research Sponsored By Syncrude Canada Ltd.

Scientist Tackles Challenges In Oil Sands Industry

Dr. Sean Sanders is a world-renowned expert in the field of pipeline research, particularly in the oil sands industry, where mixtures of oil sand (sand, clays, bitumen) and water are transported from a remote mine site to an extraction plant.

“The oil sands industry is facing challenges; specifically, improving recovery and reducing greenhouse gas emissions, water use and land disturbance,” says Dr. Sanders, Associate Professor in the Department of Chemical and Materials Engineering at the University of Alberta.

“The research I do helps resource recovery sustainability in all those areas.”

Diverse Talents

Since completing his PhD at the University of Alberta 15 years ago, Dr. Sanders has shown that he is equally at home in the control room of an extraction plant working with operators, delivering a lecture on fluid mechanics to a room full of students, or in the lab working on experiments designed to improve the oil sands hydrotransport process.

His philosophy that pipelines should be viewed as “process vessels where reactions occur” has formed his approach to pipeline design, operation and optimization.

“A physical transformation of the bitumen must occur while it is being transported,” Dr. Sanders says.

Finding Motivation

In 2008 the inaugural NSERC Industrial Research Chair in Pipeline Transport Processes was established at the University of Alberta specifically for Dr. Sanders. He has a large research group working on several different projects, each of which has important implications for the oil sands industry. This is what keeps him motivated and excited.

“The opportunity to contribute to what are some very real challenges is really fantastic,” Dr. Sanders enthuses. “Every day I come to work and I feel like the options are endless. I look forward to tackling the challenges with my collaborators — my students, other university researchers and engineers from the companies that sponsor the Industrial Research Chair.”

Contributions and Collaborations

One example of the important contributions of Dr. Sanders’ research is the improvements made to SRC Pipe Flow model, the industry standard for slurry flow predictions. It is in these pipelines, referred to as “oil sand hydrotransport” or “conditioning” lines, that the bitumen is prepared for separation. Additionally, Dr. Sanders’ invention of a novel meter to measure bitumen froth flow rate is a testament of his ability to understand the fundamentals while keeping his eye on the practical.

As his position as NSERC Chair nears the end of its first five-year term, the industry-government-university collaboration has delivered invaluable insights into the complicated processes occurring in oil sands related pipeline flows. Dr. Sanders agrees that he is making a valuable contribution to industry, which will benefit society as a whole. He says, though, that his role as a teacher is equally valuable.

“I am on the frontlines with young engineers, equipping the next generation of oil sand researchers and practitioners,” Dr. Sanders says. “I am developing them to be critical thinkers, better researchers and active members of society. That is of enormous benefit to society because we need a highly skilled workforce to ensure that Canada’s oil sands are developed in a responsible and sustainable manner.”