Comparing oilsands notes

(Edmonton) Student researchers from the University of Alberta and Germany were comparing notes on their oilsands research at a science forum at Lister Centre last week. The U of A students and their German colleagues, most of whom are graduate students, are part of the Helmholtz-Alberta Initiative, a five-year research partnership that began in 2009.

One focus of the initiative is to develop technologies to make Alberta’s oilsands’ industry more sustainable. The U of A brings its oil industry experience and the Germans bring their background in the coal industry, through the Helmholtz Association of Research Centres, to the collaboration.
Jan Hoffmann, a German PhD student with one of the Helmholtz institutions, specializes in carbon-capture research connected to the coal industry. Hoffmann says what he’s learned in Germany can be applied here in Alberta.

“My research involves capturing carbon dioxide from flue gas chimneys used in German coal-mining operations, but the same knowledge can be applied to mining the oilsands here in Alberta,” said Hoffmann, who will spend the next two months at the U of A working with colleagues to develop silica membranes to capture carbon-dioxide emissions.

Heather Archibald, a U of A master’s student in land reclamation, shares ideas with her Helmholtz-Alberta Initiative colleagues who lay down new grasslands and forests over de-commissioned coal mine properties in Germany.

“We’re looking at oilsands land reclamation areas in the Fort McMurray area that are between three and 12 years old,” said Archibald. “We want to see what have been the most successful techniques and soil types for generating new vegetation over land that has been mined for oil.”
Both Hoffmann and Archibald agree that meeting face-to-face with their HAI colleagues advances everyone’s research.

“It’s very important for young researchers to go to other universities because you see other methods of research. Everyone does things a little bit differently and then we can take best ideas and use them,” said Hoffmann.

The HAI is now two years into the five-year plan, but officials on both sides of the German-Canadian collaboration are confident that oilsands and coal industry research is only the beginning.

Stefan Scherer, the managing director of the initiative, says that since the Helmholtz and U of A teams began working together, whole new fields of collaboration are now being discussed.

“For example, we have discovered common interests and complementary skills between the U of A and the Helmholtz Association in the field of infectious disease research,” said Scherer. “Talks are underway on both sides to include the heath-science sector in the future of HAI and that adds to the sustainability of this international collaboration.”