Research & Innovation

Industry-led research has been underway in the oil sands since development began in the early 20th century. Today, dozens of industry – and government – supported research projects are focused on reducing impacts on water, land and air. 

  • The Government of Alberta has earmarked $32 million to support the University of Alberta’s clean energy research, including $7 million dedicated to tailings research at the University of Alberta’s School of Energy and the Environment.

  • Research at the University of Alberta’s Centre for Oil Sands Innovation and at the University of Calgary’s Alberta Ingenuity Centre for In Situ Energy is geared to developing less energy-intensive oil sands drilling practices.

  • A $200-million Alberta government initiative called the Innovative Energy Technology program supports development of new recovery technology.

  • A $25-million research partnership between the University of Alberta and the Helmholtz Association of German Research Centres focuses on cleaner energy production, with an emphasis on the oil sands.

  • Alberta Innovates – Energy and Environment Solutions, through the Water Research Institute, is active in projects focused on improving water management through reducing, reusing or recycling water in oil sands extraction and processing.


Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance (COSIA) is an alliance of oil sands producers focused on accelerating the pace of improvement in environmental performance in Canada’s oil sands through collaborative action and innovation.

The alliance was launched March 1, 2012 when representatives of 12 companies signed the COSIA charter, signifying their agreement with COSIA’s vision, their support of its beliefs, and their pledge to uphold the commitments put forward in the charter.

COSIA is bringing together leading thinkers from industry, government, academia and the wider public to improve measurement, accountability and environmental performance in the oil sands in four priority areas. These four environmental priorities are tailings, water, land and greenhouse gases.

COSIA will take innovation and environmental performance in the oil sands to the next level, building on the experiences and successes of earlier oil sands organizations such as the Canadian Oil Sands Network for Research and Development (CONRAD), the Oil Sands Leadership Initiative (OSLI) and the Oil Sands Tailings Consortium (OSTC). 


Examples of current research areas and programs

Source:, a Government of Alberta website

  • Geothermal heat as a lower-emission alternative to natural gas.

  • Water treatment to reduce use of fresh water and enhance water recycling systems.

  • Solvents, combustion, biological processes and electrical heating for in situ recovery processes to reduce energy consumption, emissions and water use.

  • The AERI/Alberta Research Council Core Industry Research Program, a $4-million per year effort to improve the application of in situ thermal processes.

  • Use of petroleum coke – a by-product of the upgrading process – to produce synthetic gas to generate power and hydrogen. This could transform oil sands operators from a net consumer of natural gas to a net supplier.

  • The Hydrocarbon Upgrading Demonstration Program, an initiative to demonstrate upgrading integrated with gasification and carbon capture and storage. A $1.8-million fund to develop new methods of reclaiming disturbed sites to full forest.

Tailings pond research

The oil sands industry has conducted tailings research for decades, as have Alberta Innovates – Technology Futures (formerly Alberta Research Council), the CANMET Energy Technology Centre and the University of Alberta. The collective goal is to improve technology, develop alternative solutions and to reduce the volume of tailings and increase the rate of reclamation.
Supported by industry and government, the Oil Sands Tailings Research Facility is researching topics such as sensor technology, tailings particles, filtration, thickening methods and chemical separation of tailings.

Nationally, researchers are collaborating on a method in which flue gases such as CO2 are injected into tailings ponds to foster growth of micro-algae, which would then be used to create ethanol, bio-diesel, fertilizer and other products.

Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development is currently working on a provincial tailings management framework – an integrated management approach for reducing tailings inventory while addressing environmental issues like long term containment and reclamation.

The Tailings Technology Roadmap and Action Plan released in August 2012 provides a full view of the suite of tailings technologies for application to oil sands reclamation. The plan provides a comprehensive review of technologies that will help industry identify the suite of technologies best suited to individual operations. The project has been a collaboration of Alberta
Innovates – Energy and Environment Solutions (AI-EES) and the Oil Sands Tailings Consortium (OSTC) in partnership with Alberta Energy, Natural Resources Canada, Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development, and the Alberta Energy Resources Conservation Board.

Read more innovation and technology stories

Lisa Brown,
University of Alberta

Meet Lisa Brown. Lisa is a Ph.D. Candidate in Geoenvironmental Engineering at the University of Alberta.

Canada's Oil Sands Innovation Alliance


Visit the COSIA website