Ward G. Wilson

Ward G. Wilson

Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering
University of Alberta

Chair title

NSERC/COSIA Industrial Research Chair in Oil Sands Geotechnique

Chair program

Industrial Research Chairs program


Senior Industrial Research Chairholder since 2013


The oil sands are viewed as a vital component of the Canadian economy. At the same time, the environmental impacts of oil sands operations are growing. Tailings impoundments are used almost exclusively for waste management, and the combined footprint of these impoundments is currently more than 220 km2. Processed oil sands ore yields a tailings slurry composed of water, sand, silt and clay (or "fines") and a small amount of residual bitumen. The tailings are discharged into a settling basin, allowing the sand fraction to settle quickly on the beach, with the balance of fine tailings settling in the pond.

The Canadian Oil Sands Innovation Alliance (COSIA) has partnered with the University of Alberta to significantly advance the rate at which tailings ponds can be reclaimed. The proposed research program consists of complementary themes that integrate multidisciplinary expertise from the University of Alberta and industry. The research proposes the development and application of new and innovative geotechniques to design dry stacked deposits for the oil sands industry while simultaneously investigating geotechnical and bio-geochemical aspects of current oil sands tailings management and reclamation strategies. The proposed research program focuses on three themes:

  • engineered mixtures of tailings and overburden for dry stacked deposits
  • influence of bio-geochemical interactions on the geotechnical behaviour of soft tailings
  • capping soft tailings deposits

These complementary themes aim to conduct research that looks to the future of tailings deposits while providing research for immediate/interim challenges. It is anticipated that 15 highly qualified personnel will be trained in state-of-the-art reclamation techniques through the research program. Further, the collaboration between industry and academia will enable fundamental discoveries about the behaviour and improved management of fluid fine tailings, benefiting the engineering discipline, and bolster the University of Alberta and Canada's position as an international leader in mining reclamation and oil sands tailings geotechnique.

Dr. G. Ward Wilson, the IRC Chairholder, is a professor of geotechnical and geoenvironmental engineering at the University of Alberta and brings over 30 years of industrial experience to his practice in advanced mine waste management and unsaturated soil mechanics. He has extensive international experience in mine waste geotechnique and has maintained a strong industrial focus through his research programs. During the initial IRC term, Dr. Wilson, as Chairholder, trained and mentored seven Ph.D. and eight M.Sc. students, three postdoctoral fellows, two research associates and two technicians. Under his leadership, the initial IRC term provided industrial members of COSIA with novel technologies to measure the effectiveness of current tailings remediation efforts, new and innovative processes for reducing the amount of post-production tailings, understanding of the long-term geotechnical behaviour of fluid fine tailings, as well as tailings simulation models to assist industry with tailings planning and management. These novel approaches to industry’s research challenges have increased the research capacities of both the University of Alberta and industry partners.

The IRC renewal program enables the oil sands industry to combine its efforts with those of leading researchers at the University of Alberta to develop novel technologies and methods to manage oil sands tailings in northern Alberta. The IRC program will advance the scientific community’s fundamental understanding of the behaviour of fluid fine tailings and create new designs for dry stackable tailings to increase the sustainability of the oil sands operations. These advances are aligned with the industry’s regulatory requirements and commitment to improve tailings management by reducing land disturbance through tailings management facilities and earlier restoration of tailings deposits. The IRC program will provide industry with the ability to responsibly develop the oil sands and reduce the impact of its tailings. Once the fundamentals of each issue outlined in the proposal are well understood, demonstration field tests and verification will be used to guide industry for future development of these processes.

The development of the Canadian oil sands has attracted intensive global attention. Canadians and the global community are concerned with the scale and impact of developing this vital resource. They demand that proven sustainable technologies be developed and implemented to reclaim and replenish the land that has been disturbed by mining and the associated waste repositories. Both the environmental and financial liability of the Canadian oil sands industry are enormous. In addition to optimizing the operation of the oil sands tailings industry, the IRC renewal program will enable the industry to responsibly manage its post-production tailings and create more environmentally conscious solutions to reduce the industry’s footprint. The ultimate goal of the second term of the NSERC/COSIA IRC in Oil Sands Tailings Geotechnique is to provide new technologies that can be readily implemented with the optimum cost/benefit success in terms of sustainable oil sands operations and restored landscapes in Canada.


  • Canadian Oil Sands Innovation Alliance (COSIA)
  • Tailings Environmental Priority Area (EPA)

Contact information

Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering
University of Alberta
Edmonton, Alberta



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