Part of About oil sands

Oil sands – Overview

Oil sands or bitumen is found in nature but must be processed before it is transformed into fuels or other products.


The earliest documented oil sands mining operation was set up in 1745 in northeastern France, with refining capabilities added in 1857.

Dr. Karl Clark, chemist and oil sands researcher, perfected and patented a hot water separation process while working for the Research Council of Alberta and the University of Alberta in 1926.  It became the basis of today's thermal extraction process.

In the early days of discovery, oil sands were incorrectly referred to as tar sands. One of their first uses was for roofing or road paving, but since the sand will not harden, the practice ended.
Tar and oil sand sources include these characteristics:

  • Oil sand is a naturally occurring petrochemical that can be upgraded into crude oil and other petroleum products. At room temperature it is a grainy version of cold molasses.
  • Tar is synthetically produced from coal, wood, petroleum or peat through destructive distillation. It is generally used to seal against moisture. It must be heated to be used.

Oil sands explained

Oil sand is a naturally occurring mixture of sand, clay or other minerals, water and bitumen, which is a heavy and extremely viscous oil. It must be processed before it can be used by refineries to produce fuels such as gasoline and diesel. The Athabasca deposit is the largest, most developed oil sands project in Alberta. It utilizes the most technologically advanced production processes. As more research is done, new technologies are increasing the treatment methods available to oil sands producers. Oil sands can also be found in several locations around the globe, including Venezuela, the United States and Russia.

Oil Sands production is expected to increase from 2.8 million barrels per day in 2017 to 3.9 million barrels per day in 2027, according to the Alberta Energy Regulator’s (AER's) 2018 Alberta’s Energy Reserves and Supply/Demand Outlook. The AER also offers more information about oil sands.


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