Canada Excellence Research Chair

Dr. Thomas Thundat
Canada Excellence Research Chair in Oil Sands Molecular Engineering

Thomas Thundat


Research Summary:

The massive landscapes of Alberta’s oilsands represent a multi-billion dollar economic operation. Yet, it is their underlying micro-scale chemical processes, such as the complex interaction of water and bitumen, and of sand and clay, which determine whether the oil they hold can be successfully extracted and refined. If scientists can understand more about the complex processes happening both underground and during oil recovery, they will be able to develop cheaper and more energy-efficient methods of extraction.

Dr. Thomas Thundat, Canada Excellence Research Chair in Oil Sands Molecular Engineering, will develop new detection and extraction technologies to improve the overall efficiency of how Canada’s oilsands are processed. The tools he develops will help establish a basic understanding of oilsands interface, and will eventually lead to extraction processes that are more energy-efficient, use less water, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Thundat’s research program will enhance the University of Alberta’s existing expertise in oilsands research, and will bring together leading-edge researchers in nanotechnology, biomedical engineering, information communications technologies, and natural and energy resource management.

Thundat’s work will lead to more sustainable techniques for oil extraction and refinement, greatly reducing the environmental impact of the oil industry and helping Canada better meet its emissions reduction targets.


Dr. Thomas Thundat is a world leader in the study of molecules and nanoscale structures at interfaces. He has pioneered new techniques for detecting molecules on surfaces—even in trace quantities—and has developed new sensors that have tremendous potential applications for oilsands processing.

Before assuming his Canada Excellence Research Chair in Oil Sands Molecular Engineering, Thundat was a research professor at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and a visiting professor at the University of Burgundy, France. He also served as corporate fellow and leader of the Nanoscale Science & Devices Group at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Tenn.

Thundat holds a PhD in physics from the University at Albany, State University of New York, and a master’s from Indian Institute of Technology Madras. He has more than 300 publication credits in leading international journals and textbooks, and holds almost 30 patents. One of these inventions is based on microfabricated cantilevers, which can be used for detecting extremely small concentrations of chemicals—for example, explosive molecules.

Internationally recognized for his work, Thundat has received several awards, including the Young Scientist award from the U.S. Department of Energy, the Pioneer award from the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, and the Scientific American 50 Award. He was also twice named the Oak Ridge National Laboratory Inventor of the Year. His current research interests include developing micro- and nano-sensors to detect physical, chemical and biological data; and the physics and chemistry of interfaces.

“Thomas Thundat bridges basic research and industry application, with an impressive track record of commercialization. He is a terrific addition to the University of Alberta team researching energy and environment. His special expertise will have an impact on many aspects of oil production, from extracting the oil, to eliminating tailings ponds, to upgrading products. His ability to measure tons of materials moving at hundreds of miles an hour will be revolutionary, including the impact on efficiency and water usage.” —Indira Samarasekera, president, University of Alberta