Research & Development
Mother Nature takes her time creating topsoil. It can take centuries for organic matter and microorganisms to work their way into the ground, creating the nutrient rich layer of soil which plants need to grow.
In any industrial activity — from building a new house in Calgary to extracting bitumen in the oil sands — the topsoil is the first thing to go when a site is cleared.
In the oil and gas industry, the topsoil has to be replaced 40 or 50 years later when the project is complete. The operators are required to reclaim the land, returning it to productive uses, and topsoil is a key requirement.
Since 2003, scientists at Imperial's research facility in
Calgary have been involved in an innovative project
to manufacture topsoil. Here a test plot at
Olds, Alberta shows the successful growth
of barley on manufactured soil.
“It takes hundreds of years for subsoil to turn into topsoil through natural processes,” says Ron Myers, manager of facilities and environment research for Imperial Oil. “We wanted to see if we could help Mother Nature along and accelerate that process and turn subsoil into topsoil over five years.”
Since 2003, scientists at Imperial’s research facility in Calgary have been involved in an innovative project to manufacture topsoil. The challenge facing the research team was finding the right sort of all-natural, organic material to add to the soil. In your garden, the compost you add in the spring has disappeared by the end of the summer, broken down by bugs and bacteria in the soil.
“Folks have done work in the past where you add compost and it has a short-term effect, but the bugs in the soil break it down and it disappears,” says Myers. The researchers had to find a mix of organic materials, part of which wouldn’t break down over months or years, but will stay in the soil for centuries.
Myers says the results are promising. “We’re now in year nine of a pilot in Alberta and we’ve demonstrated that we can actually build topsoil out of subsoil which has as good as or better properties for growing crops than natural topsoil.”
While topsoil that’s cleared from a site these days is stockpiled for use decades later in reclamation, being able to speed up the creation of topsoil will be very helpful in reclamation of older sites where topsoil salvaging was not a requirement at the time. “We’re looking at applying this reclamation technology in places like Alberta, but also northern climates.”