- 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.
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
The student will gain training and expertise in the field of environmental analysis, including sample collection and preparation. The student will have the option to 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.
Partners and collaboration
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.
For further information, please contact Dr. Barrow, Prof. Bending, or Dr. Headley directly:
Dr. Mark P. Barrow:
Department of Chemistry, University of Warwick
Prof. Gary Bending
Department of Life Sciences, University of Warwick
Dr. John V. Headley:
Environment and Climate Change Canada / Government of Canada
Please visit the University of Warwick website for application guidance: https://warwick.ac.uk/fac/sci/lifesci/study/pgr/studentships/nerccenta/
Barrow, M.P., Peru, K.M. & Headley, J.V. (2014) “An Added Dimension: GC Atmospheric Pressure Chemical Ionization FTICR MS and the Athabasca Oil Sands.” Anal. Chem., 86(16), pp. 8281-8288.
Barrow, M.P., Witt, M., Headley, J.V. & Peru, K.M. (2010) “Athabasca Oil Sands Process Water: Characterization by Atmospheric Pressure Photoionization and Electrospray Ionization Fourier Transform Ion Cyclotron Resonance Mass Spectrometry” Anal. Chem., 82(9), pp. 3727-3735.
Barrow, M.P., Peru, K.M., McMartin, D.W. & Headley, J.V. (2016) “Effects of Extraction pH on the Fourier Transform Ion Cyclotron Resonance Mass Spectrometry Profiles of Athabasca Oil Sands Process Water” Energy & Fuels, 30(5), pp. 3615-3621.
Headley, J.V., Barrow, M.P., Peru, K.M., Fahlman, B., Frank, R.A., Bickerton, G., McMaster, M.E., Parrott, J. & Hewitt, L.M. (2011) “Preliminary fingerprinting of Athabasca oil sands polar organics in environmental samples using electrospray ionization Fourier transform ion cyclotron resonance mass spectrometry.” Rapid Commun. Mass Spectrom., 25(13), pp. 1899-1909.
Headley, J.V., Peru, K.M. & Barrow, M.P. (2016) “Advances in mass spectrometric characterization of naphthenic acids fraction compounds in oil sands environmental samples and crude oil-a review.” Mass Spectrom. Rev., 35(2), pp. 311-328.
The Ion Cyclotron Resonance Laboratory has assessed the circumstances pertaining to the coronavirus pandemic and has established new working practices that enable safe continuation of research. The focus of the mitigation efforts has been the acquisition of new FTICR data and the laboratory reopened during the summer of 2020. Arrangements have also been put in place which permit remote data analysis and remote meetings at/between Warwick and Environment and Climate Change Canada, which grant researchers increased flexibility and offer a resilient approach should there be a resurgence of the coronavirus.