November 2007 Issue

The Summit series

From the Oilsands to the Pharmacy

A professor and researcher, Dr. Murray Gray, P.Eng., is helping Alberta more efficiently process bitumen. But his knowledge of chemicals has also led him in a direction that might not spring to mind — to the world of pharmaceuticals and how they’re metabolized.


Research conducted by Dr. Murray Gray, P.Eng., could lead to more efficient bitumen processing. Dr. Gray is the 2007 winner of the Frank Spragins Technical Summit Award. Although the nomination deadline has passed for the 2008 Summit Awards, APEGGA accepts nominations year round. Visit www.apegga.org, go to Members on the upper left, and drop down to Awards.

It is said that good things come to those who wait, and Murray Gray, P.Eng., knows all about that. Being patient as he awaited results from his various research projects has netted him a multitude of awards and accolades.

The most recent of these is the Frank Spragins Technical Summit Award from his professional association, APEGGA.

“It takes a certain kind of personality to do this job,” says Dr. Gray. “It’s not for those in a hurry.”

Dr. Gray has spent much of his time in the research lab, through some 27 years. In that period, he has been the author or co-author of 150 papers, supervised 41 student theses, made hundreds of presentations at conferences, universities and industry groups, and even had his name placed on a patent for the Cell Culture Bioreactor.

But for all the recognition, Dr. Gray remembers all too well what it was like when he started out in his career. Fear, it seems, was a great motivator.

“I remember my first day as a professor. I was young and my students thought I was one of them. In my early days of teaching I was terrified — until I realized that I could say I don’t know the answer,” said Dr Gray.

The fear dissipated and the University of Alberta professor began taking home some impressive hardware for his teaching efforts. Awards include the Faculty of Engineering Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching and the Killam Annual Professorship. The Killam Award is presented to faculty members based on the quality of their scholarly activities such as teaching, research, publications, creative activities, presented papers, and supervision of graduate students.

Of course, like any job, there is that one little thing that isn’t as well liked. Being a professor is no exception.

“While teaching is a delight, marking is not,” Dr. Gray says.

An Oilsands Standard
Dr. Gray is not only a professor and accomplished researcher, he is also an author, and something of an authority on the chemistry, thermodynamics and kinetics of heavy oil and bitumen processing.
In 1994 he published the text Upgrading Petroleum Residues and Heavy Oils. It became a standard reference material for students and industry alike. Since that time, rather than rewrite a new and updated version of the textbook, Dr. Gray has been giving short courses and updating his research through notes and papers. The short courses are for industry professionals as well as students.

“We’ve done lots since then and obviously (the text) needs to be updated. Through short courses and notes it’s gone through about two dozen revisions. The purchase price of a new text would be a bit prohibitive for students,” Dr. Gray says.

““It takes a certain kind of personality to do
this job. It’s not for those in a hurry..
-Dr. Murray Gray, P.Eng

Absorbing Work
Beyond research into the petroleum industry, Dr. Gray has also become involved with research in medicine, specifically bioreactors and metabolism. With a background in chemical engineering and an understanding of the way chemicals react together, Dr. Gray was able to work with people in pharmacy, to further research drug metabolism times and effectiveness.

“There is a delicate balance between metabolism and the application of medications. Some you want to take effect immediately, others you want to absorb more slowly.”

The body’s liver works in much the same way as a bioreactor, so determining first how to either speed or slow the metabolization of a medication is key. Once that’s figured out, the challenge moves on to the next level.

“Once we have the balances, then it becomes an engineering challenge. How do we produce it on a large scale, easily and efficiently?” explains Dr. Gray.

While the medical research is fascinating, Dr. Gray prefers working on the range of problems with oilsands upgrading and the oilsands in general. His accomplishments there have inspired others to build on his ideas and results.

Starting Small
“We were experimenting on how to get more liquid from bitumen — more oil and less coke. In the lab we were successful in reducing the amount of coke formed. It got others thinking about how to do it on a much larger scale,” says Dr. Gray.

Larger is an understatement. Dr. Gray’s team looked at one gram of bitumen at a time in the lab when determining how to extract more liquid. Syncrude Canada, which is one of those looking at how to use this research, would have to replicate that on a scale of 150,000 or more barrels of oil per day.
But if it can be done, then all the time in the lab will have been worth it to Dr. Gray.

“We lose 20 per cent of oil through processing. Even improving that number by a few points translates to more money. It’s also a benefit to the environment.”

The Frank Spragins Technical Award is presented to APEGGA members recognized by their peers for integrity and expertise, and for outstanding accomplishments in fields related to engineering, geology or geophysics. The award involves technical accomplishment.