November 2, 2011 • Current Events, Emerging Technology, Energy Innovation

A “sticky” note on tar sands

by Allie Heiniger

Tar sands (also known as oil sands) has become a topic of conversation in the energy procurement world these days. Despite its recent popularity, most people don’t understand what it is, how it is used and its awesome history.

Did you know that most of the world’s oil is in the form of tar sands? Interestingly, the only large-scale commercial tar sands industry is in Canada. Energy professionals have noted that, because of the rising prices of crude oil, tar sands operations will eventually become commercially viable for some companies.

Tar Sands

Tar sands is made up of a combination of sand, water, clay and bitumen. Bitumen is a thick, sticky, black oil and is mined from fields through strip mining, open pit techniques or underground heating. This is essentially asphalt. To get a single barrel of refined oil, it takes approximately 2 tons of tar sands and two barrels of water. Some people may think this is a process that only machines and modern minds could be capable of, but this couldn’t be further from the truth! Tar sands has been a key to success for humans for a very long time.

“They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar… ” (Gen 11:3)

Human beings have been using tar sands since the Paleolithic period. Bitumen has done it all — from waterproofing huts and boats by the Ubaids in 4500 BC, to cementing spear heads in early Mesopotamia, to mortaring  the Tower of Babel in Babylon, to mummifying the dead and creating art in Egypt, to serving as a weapon in warfare, referred to as the “Greek Fire”  by the Byzantines. The Muslim world had many energy efficiency projects using bitumen. In fact, the first streets of Baghdad were paved with tar. After they discovered distillation of bitumen, kerosene could be purchased anywhere on the streets of Damascus, long before other European countries.

In closing our history lesson of the day, the next time you take a smooth ride down a newly paved road, consider how long the human race has been using this truly awesome source of energy and ingenuity!

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