Making Real-World Connections: From Classroom to Research to Industry
By Michelle Liu • Schulich Leader at University of Alberta
This past winter, I had the opportunity to do one of my engineering co-op work terms with Dr. John Shaw's Petroleum Thermodynamics Research Group at the University of Alberta. For four months, I was immersed in scientific research aimed at improving our understanding of the behaviour and thermophysical properties of bitumen, reservoir fluids, and heavy oils in order to help the petroleum industry develop better production, transportation, and refining processes.
I mainly assisted one of the PhD candidates with their research, which was examining how different components found in bitumen and tailings interact with each other, to address issues that arise during oil sands processing and tailings management. More specifically, the research was focused on the enthalpic behaviour of these components when they interact with water, organic solvents, or with each other. These interactions can absorb or release heat and the amount of heat released or absorbed (enthalpy) may tell us something about their behaviour. For my project, I mainly worked with asphaltenes (a molecular substance that causes clogging in pipelines and fouling of machinery), gold nanoparticles (used to model asphaltenes and help us determine the structure of asphaltenes), and clays found in oil sands. Throughout the term, I measured the enthalpies of solution of these components mixed in water and different organic solvents using a precision solution calorimeter. This research required great precision and a close attention to detail since even the smallest contamination of the samples could drastically affect the results, but I enjoyed working under this pressure.
My experience working with this research group presented many learning opportunities. Firstly, it provided me with experience doing industry-sponsored research and working in a laboratory setting. Secondly, it gave me the opportunity to learn more about the petroleum industry. This research allowed me to see the connections between the real-world applicability of the material I learned in my engineering courses to the research I was conducting. It was exciting to see how I can apply what I learned in my thermodynamics and chemistry courses to understand how the experiment worked and interpret the data I was obtaining. Doing literature reviews to learn more about this area of research also helped me to learn about what processes are currently used to process oil sands, extract bitumen, and manage tailings, and understand the main industry issues this research was trying to address. Lastly, it was an opportunity to do an initial assessment of my workplace preferences and consider if research would be something I would like to pursue in the future. Working in a research setting was a unique opportunity that allowed me to see how different ideas can grow and potentially improve current technologies or practices in an industry. I enjoyed this aspect of research and I would definitely consider delving into research again in the future. This research experience was a great learning opportunity and I am looking forward to what my other co-op work placements have to offer.