U of S researchers training water specialists for demanding future
|Top: Water and soil expert Lee Barbour works with the oil sands industry to help reclaim mine sites in northern Alberta; Bottom: Geoscientist Jim Hendry works with mining companies to keep toxins out of sensitive groundwater supplies.|
By Michael Robin
Water scientists and engineers are in high demand, driven by megaprojects like Alberta’s oil sands and other energy- and infrastructure related projects, as well as the basic needs of agriculture and water security.
University of Saskatchewan (U of S) geoscientist Jim Hendry and geotechnical engineer Lee Barbour are helping fill this need by creating opportunities for graduate students to learn at the leading edge of this rapidly evolving field.
Water security, energy and mineral resources are signature areas identified by the U of S in its drive to further its areas of expertise, recruit top students and faculty, and access resources in an increasingly competitive post-secondary landscape.
Barbour holds a Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) Industrial Research Chair, co-funded by Syncrude Canada Ltd. A civil engineer with more than 30 years of research and industrial experience in geo-environmental engineering, he studies the performance of reclamation soil covers at oil sands mine sites in northern Alberta.
“The key questions revolve around what it will take to restore these mine sites back to naturally performing landscapes with an equivalent capability to that which existed prior to mining,” Barbour said.
To do this, industry works to restore uplands so the soils have similar moisture and nutrient content as natural sites. Then they try to understand the key steps involved as these uplands evolve into fully functioning natural ecosystems.
To help answer these questions, Barbour is employing a team of a dozen undergraduate, graduate and postdoctoral fellows, working side-by-side with Syncrude environmental scientists to discover and apply knowledge in the field.
Likewise, at any given time, Hendry’s research team includes more than two dozen graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, research associates and undergraduates. Together, they explore a broad range of questions, from chemical reactions in oil sands tailings to assessing arsenic and molybdenum movement in uranium mine tailings, to exploring groundwater contamination from livestock operations.
As a world expert in how water and dissolved molecules move through the ground, Hendry creates knowledge that helps industries operate while protecting the environment. When companies and governments need to manage toxins in mine tailings, keep potash brine and livestock waste out of groundwater, or plan long-term storage of nuclear waste, they seek out Hendry’s advice.
“We have to be developing and applying state-of-the-science techniques to answer these difficult but key environment questions,” Hendry said.
Hendry has held the NSERC Industrial Research Chair in Environmental and Aqueous Geochemistry since 1995. In 2011, it was renewed for an unprecedented fourth time. Over the years, his partners have included Cameco, Saskatchewan Potash Producers Association, Shore Gold, Alberta Irrigation Projects Association, Mosaic (potash), Potash Corporation, Syncrude and the Canadian Water Network.
According to the Mining Association of Canada, the industry is slated for a period of sustained growth that will translate into a need for tens of thousands of new workers over the next decade, including water specialists. Boasting one of the highest concentrations of water experts in the world, the U of S is well positioned to help fill this need.
This article first appeared in the March 22, 2012 edition of the Regina Leader-Post.
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