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Celebrating Achievements

Each year the University of Alberta and the Alumni Association recognizes the accomplishments of members of the University community — students, staff and alumni — with various awards and honors. New Trail is pleased to salute the winners of some of the major University and Alumni Association prizes as a way of celebrating the achievements of not only these individuals but a great many others who, through their commitment and attainments, have brought honor to our alma mater.

Jacob Masliyah

J. Gordin Kaplan Award for Excellence in Research

When one has the opportunity to talk with chemical engineering professor Jacob Masliyah about his research, it doesn't take long to understand why one colleague described him as "a veritible whirling dervish of activity."

Masliyah's enthusiasm for his work is infectious, his energy self-evident, and a host of honors and awards testify not only to the intensity of his research activity but the high regard in which his work is held.

In the past decade, Masliyah has received a senior industrial fellowship from Canada's Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, has held a McCalla Research Professorship and a Killam Annual Professorship at the University (the "whirling dervish" comment was made in support of his application for the Killam award), received the Canadian Society of Chemical Engineering's Award in Industrial Practice, took home the Jules Stachiewicz Medal of the Canadian Societies of Chemical and Mechanical Engineering, and accepted an Alberta Science and Technology Leadership Award.

A popular guest lecturer, Masliyah is the invited main speaker at the 1996 International Conference on Porous Media and its Application in Science Engineering and Industry. His most recent honor is the University's prestigious J. Gordin Kaplan Award for Excellence in Research.

Much of the recognition that Masliyah has received relates to his efforts to develop efficient ways of extracting bitumen from Alberta's oil sands; however, that is an area of research he fell into "quite by accident," says the researcher who had previously specialized in basic research in areas such as heat transfer.

Masliyah came to the University of Alberta in 1977 with degrees from University College in London, the University of New Brunswick and the University of British Columbia; he had previously taught at the University of Saskatchewan. When he arrived at the U of A, he was placed in an office that belonged to a colleague who had taken a year's leave to work for the oil sands giant Syncrude. The colleague decided to stay at Syncrude and Masliyah ended up taking over not only his office but his research equipment as well.

"He had equipment downstairs [in the Chemical/Mineral Engineering Building on campus] and nobody was taking care of it, so I said 'I will look into it,"' recalls Masliyah, who began looking at the research results the technician in charge of the equipment was obtaining.

Masliyah found the data arising from the experiments puzzling. "The data did not make any sense ... so I said to myself 'This is ridiculous. The only way to understand it is to develop a theoretical framework.' So I went and thought about it."

When faced with a problem, Masliyah's approach is to "strip away all the bells and the whistles" to visualize the essence of the problem. "You have to make an image in your mind," he says. "Once the image is done, you sit down and write the math and the physics and try to solve it."

Bit by bit, Masliyah was able to place the puzzling data into a theoretical framework. Plotted in the correct way the data "made a lot of sense," says the Kaplan laureate, who was able to painstakingly distill his theoretical insights into a "very simple form." The result was a paper published in 1979 describing how light and heavy particles separate in a mixture.

"It was one of my best papers ever," he says. "It is just a three-page paper, but it has probably been referred to more than any of my other 100-plus papers."

Since 1979 Masliyah has used his expertise in fluid particle dynamics to tackle a number of practical problems of interest to the oil sands industry, but he has not lost his fondness for basic research. "I still have a love for very fundamental work," he says. "The fundamental research gives the vision for what you can do in applied work. And sometimes from the applied research I do, problems arise that I can really only understand if I look at them in a very fundamental way. So you go back and forth — it's very hard sometimes to know what is applied and what is fundamental."

What really matters, Masliyah told his audience at the Kaplan Awards event, is not the label — applied or basic — that is attached to your work, but how well you do it. "At the end of the day what truly matters is that you do it competently. Competent research can be used anywhere. Bad research cannot be used anywhere."

Recently Masliyah has begun to turn his attention to another industry of importance to Alberta. Having become an associate of the Pulp and Paper Centre of Excellence supported by NSERC, Mashyah will be working in the area of fibre fractionation. He hopes to use his expertise in fluid particle dynamics to find improved ways of separating short and long pulp fibres. "If you make paper out of short fibres and you make paper out of long fibres, they have completely different properties," he explains. "They absorb water differently, they tear differently, they break differently.

"The question is can you separate the short from the long. And the question is how effective are you in separation. Whatever you develop has to be easy to use, extremely cheap - look at the price of a tissue paper; you just use it and throw it away — and very easy to introduce to a pulp mill."

While Masliyah is clearly excited to be seeking a niche for the U of A in research and teaching related to pulp and paper technology, he has no intention of turning his back on oil sands research. "Absolutely not," he says. "There are still an incredible amount of problems to be resolved, and not just for the industry itself — these are also fundamental problems, problems we don't understand the physics behind.

"It is a beautiful combination: if you solve them you can satisfy the industrial sector; if you solve them for yourself you satisfy your objective in being at the University."

Published Autumn 1995.

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