The oil sands industry in Alberta, Canada, represents an alternative source of petroleum which has positioned Canada as the leading supplier of oil to the USA.  The oil sands material consist of clay, sand, water, and bitumen, where the bitumen can be extracted using an alkaline hot water extractions process.   Approximately three barrels of water are needed to produce one barrel of oil but this water, oil sands process affected water (OSPW), cannot be discharged back into the environment, due to federal regulations.  As a result, the OSPW is stored in vast tailings ponds, currently estimated to hold approximately 1 trillion litres of water.  The anthropogenic impact upon the aquatic environment is of increasing concern.  There is a strong need for improved methodologies for environmental monitoring, particularly with respect to understanding the chemistry of highly complex environmental samples.  Ultrahigh resolution mass spectrometry, particularly Fourier transform ion cyclotron resonance (FTICR) mass spectrometry (MS), has been playing a leading role in the modern characterization of these industrial and environmental samples, leading to complex data sets which subsequently serve as “profiles” or “fingerprints” of the organic components.

Figure 1: Athabasca oil sands processing facility, north of Fort McMurray (Alberta, Canada) and adjacent to Athabasca River.


This study will fingerprint oil sands processed waters collected from the Athabasca oil sands region, along with groundwater overlying undeveloped shale gas and tight oil reservoirs in Canada. A better understanding of the influence of environmental processes upon the molecular profiles is required, as it can be used to build a model of the environmental fate of oil sands components. In order to address this, the transport of oil sands components through soil and their subsequent microbial degradation will be experimentally investigated in the laboratory. The resulting samples will be characterized using ultrahigh resolution mass spectrometry; one of the smallest mass differences commonly observed in the mass spectra of naphthenic acid mixtures is 3.4 mDa, resulting from the complex mixture rich in Ox and SOx isobars. The project will also refine the interpretation and comparison of MS data to better characterize naphthenic acids in aquatic environments.

Training and Skills

CENTA students are required to complete 45 days training throughout their PhD including a 10 day placement. In the first year, students will be trained as a single cohort on environmental science, research methods and core skills. Throughout the PhD, training will progress from core skills sets to master classes specific to CENTA research themes. 

The student will gain training and expertise in the field of environmental analysis, including sample collection and preparation.  The student will time work in-house in Saskatoon, Canada, with the research team of Dr Headley. This international exposure will provide hands-on training in oil sands environmental chemistry. At the University of Warwick, the student will gain expertise from one of the world’s leading FTICR laboratories, learning FTICR mass spectrometry and including use of different ionization, fragmentation, and data analysis techniques.


Year 1: Introduction to FTICR mass spectrometry, training on the 12 T solariX, introduction to data analysis methods, analysis of initial samples

Year 2: Intent to coordinate field sampling during two week period with collaborators (Dr. Jason Ahad) for shale gas and tight oil reservoirs in Canada.

Year 3: Focus of the work will be Athabasca oil sands region, along with groundwater overlying undeveloped shale gas and tight oil reservoirs.

Partners and collaboration (including CASE)

Dr. Barrow has approximately 17 years of experience of working with FTICR mass spectrometry, petroleum-related samples, environmental samples, and data analysis and visualization of complex mixtures, collaborating with industry and with environmental organizations. Prof. Bending will provide expertise on microbial profiling, metagenomics, and soil microcosm type systems. Dr. Headley has approximately 40 years of research experience and is amongst the world’s leading experts on the oil sands industry, with more than 26 years of working at Environment and Climate Change Canada.  Environment and Climate Change Canada will contribute £1000 per year, host the student for a 3-month period of time.

Further Details

For further information, please contact Dr. Barrow, Prof. Bending, or Dr. Headley directly:


Dr. Mark P. Barrow:

Department of Chemistry, University of Warwick

E-Mail: M.P.Barrow@warwick.ac.uk



Prof. Gary Bending

Department of Life Sciences, University of Warwick

E-Mail: gary.bending@warwick.ac.uk


Dr. John V. Headley:

Environment and Climate Change Canada / Government of Canada

E-Mail: john.headley@canada.ca