Project Highlights:


  • State-of-the-art mass spectrometry instrumentation (amongst world-leading)
  • International environmental research
  • Supervisory team consists of world leaders in oil sands, soil microbial profiling, and complex mixture analysis


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 vast amounts of tailings pond waters contain substances that are known to be toxic to aquatic environments. For example, recent studies have implicated a wide range of classical naphthenic acids as principal toxicants, along with heavy metals and salts. The anthropogenic impact of future release of OSPW upon the aquatic environment is thus of increasing concern. There is a strong need for improved methodologies for characterization of the oil sands naphthenic acids for environmental monitoring, particularly with respect to understanding the chemistry of highly complex environmental samples. The comprehensive characterization of the organic fraction of OSPW with regards to fate and transport in aquatic environments is not yet established. Ultrahigh resolution mass spectrometry, particularly Fourier transform ion cyclotron resonance (FTICR) mass spectrometry (MS), has played a key role in the molecular characterization of environmental samples, leading to complex data sets which subsequently serve as “profiles” or “fingerprints” of the organic components in OSPW. The proposed work will, for the first time, utilize advances in proprietary software tools, developed at the University of Warwick, to improve and expand the molecular characterization of principal toxic components in OSPW, including providing greater insight into isomeric structures.



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

Students will be awarded CENTA2 Training Credits (CTCs) for participation in CENTA2-provided and ‘free choice’ external training. One CTC equates to 1⁄2 day session and students must accrue 100 CTCs across the three years of their PhD.


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 18 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.

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