The year was 1929, and as the world entered the Great Depression, a chemist from Ontario was busy pursuing a patent for a game-changing oil sands technology. Although Dr. Karl Clark merely suspected it at the time, his discovery of how to extract bitumen from the oil sands would later play a pivotal role in Alberta’s resource development and economic future.
Separating the Man From the Patent
Dr. Clark was born in Georgetown, Ontario in 1888. A family man who loved the outdoors, he pursued excellence in academics and earned two science degrees from McMaster University. Shortly after, he completed a doctorate in chemistry from the University of Illinois.
In 1916, before the age of 30, Dr. Clark became chief of the Road Materials Division with the Federal Department of Mines, and four years later was asked to lead a division of the same name for the newly created Scientific and Industrial Research Council of Alberta.
He was tasked with discovering how to commercially separate oil locked within sand in the northwestern part of the province. The research council was simply looking to create a more water-resistant paving product; historically, the region’s indigenous people used the thick substance as an adhesive to build weapons and tools and to repair boats. Now the world was beginning to see the potential for bitumen’s use as an energy resource.
A Patient Patent
In 1923, Dr. Clark began testing his separation process at the University of Alberta campus in the basement of the power plant. One year later he moved his work to a large scale plant built at Edmonton’s Dunvegan rail yards.
Finally, Dr. Clark’s unexpected breakthrough occurred in 1927. According to Alberta Culture and Tourism, he discovered his research would have even greater implications than paving, reporting that:
“It is now practical to regard the bitumen content of the bituminous sands as a crude oil and therefore a potential motor fuel. […] General conditions in the oil industry are not yet propitious for the development of the Alberta bituminous sands for manufacture of gasoline. But the recent improvements of the cracking process have opened up an almost unlimited outlet for separated bitumen which will be taken advantage of when the demand for crude oil becomes more keen and its price commences to rise.”
Dr. Clark received his first patent for bituminous sand processing in 1929. This patent described a process using hot water and chemical reactions to separate the bituminous sand. The mixture would react, causing the dense sand, silt, and clay to sink, and allow bitumen to be skimmed from the surface.
Dr. Clark’s plant later relocated to the Clearwater River near Fort McMurray, where he continued his research and soon discovered the foundations of oil sands extraction. His findings contributed to the industry’s first oil sands separation plant known as “Bitumount,” today an historic site.
Because of his life’s work, Dr. Clark is considered a pioneer of the oil sands and future of Alberta’s energy industry.