What are Oil Sands?

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  • Written By: Jason C. Chavis
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 08 February 2020
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Oil sands are a mixture made from sand and an organic liquid known as bitumen. The petroleum found in oil sand is sticky, black and viscous. Many countries throughout the world have large deposits of the material, most notably Canada and Venezuela. With the continued use of oil across the world, the need for new sources of petroleum has created a strong demand for oil sand mining. Until the 21st century, the cost of removing the oil from the sand portion outweighed the profitability, but as the price per barrel rose dramatically in the early part of the century, so did the expansion of oil sand extraction.

Unlike traditional oil wells, extracting oil sands is a far more expensive and time-consuming process. Crude oil generally will flow out of the ground under its own pressure; however, oil sands do not contain the same pressure and viscosity, so other methods must be employed. The most common practice for oil sand extraction is through strip mining or a process known as in situ, which heats up the oil sands using steam or hot air. Additionally, a method of hydroprocessing must be used to purify the petroleum before it is sent to the refinery.


Oil sands are believed to have been exploited by humans as early as Neanderthal times, roughly 40,000 years ago. Archaeological evidence points to their use use in the construction of tools and structures in ancient Syria and Egypt. The process to separate the oil from the sand was perfected in France by 1742, according to the Oil Museum of France. This process used a method of vapor separation to remove the hydrocarbons, which could then be harnessed as fuel. Today, the oil derived from oil sands is commonly seen in the production of synthetic oils.

The level of potential in oil sand mining throughout the world is immense. Canada and Venezuela hold the equivalent of all the crude oil in the world, with just each nation's oil sand deposits. Other areas, such as the United States, Russia and the Middle East also have vast reserves of oil sands. As traditional suppliers of crude oil, such as Saudi Arabia, use up the remainder of their reserves, oil sands is predicted to continue to supply the world with enough oil to offset the loss of traditional sources for decades.


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