What’s next.

Oil sands technology could save millions of lives

Sirish Shah

Professor of Chemical and Materials Engineering, Faculty of Engineering

Sirish Shah tells how his team developed software sensors to help industries ranging from polymers, and pulp and paper, to oil sands. They found the same image-based sensor technology was able to identify malaria in blood cells.

Research can be both transformative and serendipitous.

As an engineering professor at the University of Alberta, I lead a team that has developed software sensors that have found use in industries ranging from polymers, and pulp and paper, to oil sands. Most recently, we developed a sensor based on image-processing ideas to significantly reduce bitumen losses in oil sands tailings ponds.

At a wedding reception a few years back, I was seated next to a doctor who was concentrating his efforts on malaria — a disease that claims nearly one million lives worldwide each year. During our conversation, we wondered if we could use the same image-based sensor technology to identify malaria in blood cells. As someone who was born and grew up in Africa, I was motivated. Current strategies to detect and diagnose malaria are prone to human error, require manual assessment and are time-consuming and difficult to deploy.

Our hunch was right. We’ve since repurposed our image-processing technology into an algorithm for malaria screening that allows users to quickly and accurately detect and diagnose the presence of malaria parasites — without ever putting eyes to a microscope. 

We’re now in the process of developing purpose-built image-processing techniques for reliable detection and diagnosis of many preventable infectious diseases, especially in the developing world.

Imagine — transforming ideas for petrochemical processes to malaria diagnostics. It’s what’s next in helping the developing world fight disease.

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