How grad school led alumnus to a multi-billion-dollar industry

Bruce McGee says advanced education was the best use of his time during economic downturns:

“Some would say they don’t want to take on the risk of going back to school, quitting a job and not knowing the outcome of their effort. For me, that was never a question. I recognized that someone would always hire an engineer.” – Bruce McGee

 

By Kathleen Cameron

What if you allowed yourself to go wherever your curiosity and interests led you? What if, during times in your career when jobs were scarce, you invested in yourself by learning? The approach has worked wonders for Bruce McGee (Electrical ’80, MEng Electrical ’84, PhD Electrical ’98).

He’s the founder of McMillan-McGee Corp. (Mc2), a company specializing in using the Electro-Thermal Dynamic Stripping Process for remediating contaminated sites. Mc2 has completed more than $1 billion worth of remediation projects and has 23 active projects worldwide.

“We’re in a very exciting time with McMillan-McGee. “The growth of the industry is 20, 30 per cent per year. The remediation industry today is about a $75-billion-a-year industry, not including China. China says they’re going to spend $100 billion in remediation by 2020.”

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McGee has built a number of successful companies and holds the patent for ET-DSP, a process used for oil extraction and soil remediation in which electrical current is passed between electrodes placed in soil. This heats the oil or soil contaminates, allowing them to flow into a reservoir for extraction.


Economic slowdown = back to school

The path to McGee’s success as an entrepreneur, business owner and passionate engineer has been long and winding. His engineering career and, critically, the time he has invested in himself in graduate school, has been influenced by the rise and fall of oil prices over the decades.

McGee has four engineering degrees (three at the U of A, one from Calgary) under his belt and credits much of the hard work and time spent in research labs for his career success.

“The value of going back to university, whether it’s night school or full-time university, is that when get your degree, you have a real understanding of your market potential and where you fit into the market,” McGee says.

When he first graduated with his bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering in 1980, he went to work in the oil industry.

 

Answering the call of curiosity

“I went to work for Shell, and it was a very exciting and busy time,” he recalls. “I had the opportunity to work for a really large company at a very young age, and appreciate the kind of training they can give you.”

But the excitement wasn’t enough to keep the pull of graduate studies from his mind.

“When I reviewed my options of going back to university, I knew that (professors) Steve Chute and Fred Vermeulen were working on electrical heating of oil sands at the U of A,” McGee says. “That caught my attention on a number of levels.”

He decided to return to school to pursue a master’s degree in electrical engineering. After graduating in 1984, McGee experienced the reality of low oil prices affecting the energy industry.

“When I graduated, it was very tough to get a job,” he says. “It was with pure persistence and absolute tenacity that I was able to get a job with British Petroleum.

“I quickly recognized that what I was doing at BP needed a better understanding of reservoir engineering. I took night courses and completed a thesis-based master’s degree in chemical engineering at the University of Calgary, while working as an electrical engineer.”

 

Executive and entrepreneur

McGee’s time with BP exposed him to the core of the oil industry: producing and selling oil. This exposure directly influenced his next steps.

“I became an executive in an energy service company at a young age. I started my own company before I was 30 and then sold it. After I sold the company, the price of oil crashed. At that point, my options were few and far between.”

McGee decided to capitalize on hard times in the oil industry by focusing on his studies. He returned to the U of A to complete a PhD in electrical engineering under Vermeulen’s supervision. Once again, he was drawn back to the electrical heating of oilsands.

“I'm a passionate person. When I see something I really love, I go at it pretty rapidly and I throw everything into it,” McGee says. “When I went into the electrical heating of oilsands, I was more interested in doing research and having fun with the technology than I was trying to find somebody who would ultimately hire me. I saw a real value in working on this problem. I really didn’t have a sense of whether the price of oil was going to go up or down, I just thought this was an interesting technology.”

 

Building a reputation with best and brightest

Little did McGee know, a call from California would alter the path of his PhD, and ultimately, his career.

Vermeulen was approached by the University of California Berkeley to work on a project in which they were electrically heating contaminated soil. Vermeulen sent McGee. “I went to California, walked into their labs and worked with a really exciting group of people. They were developing this technology for heating dirty dirt and cleaning it up by extracting out these vapours.”

McGee applied his technique for electrical heating of oil sands (now referred to as ET-DSP) to the contaminated soil. The project was a success. McGee’s work using ET-DSP for soil decontamination played a big part in the success story.

“Twenty per cent of the cost was associated with the electrical heating, but it was responsible for taking up 80 per cent of the chemical contaminant. It demonstrated itself to be a very, very effective technology.”

After an article on the success of the project was published in Scientific American, cleaning up dirty dirt became an important part of people’s business.

“All of the sudden, people in the industry were asking me to build power supplies and electrodes for them, and I did,” McGee explains. He founded McMillan-McGee Corp. and hasn’t looked back.

 

Bringing game-changing research to the real world

Though the excitement of a booming business can be blinding to some, McGee didn’t forget his passion, electrical heating of oil sands.

“I started another company called E-T Energy Ltd., which focuses on the use of electric heating of oil sands for oil extraction. It’s essentially the same technology used in soil reclamation, but applied to the oil sands.”

With ET-DSP now patented, E-T Energy is focused on the next iteration of commercial field tests to prove the technology is viable on a commercial scale.

“The ET-DSP story is becoming more and more interesting because of its environmental and economic advantages in the oil sands.”

Field-testing of ET-DSP in the oil sands has produced a number of promising findings:

  • Oil heated using this process had a 75 per cent recovery factor.
  • The process creates no emissions.
  • ET-DSP can produce oil from a resource that is too deep to mine and too shallow for a steam-assisted gravity drainage (SAGD) process, which accounts for two-thirds of the oil in the Athabasca oilsands.
  • It does not require treated water.
  • The process can start and stop on demand, meaning little down time and an ability to run the system when electricity is less expensive. 


‘Someone will always hire an engineer.’

McGee is thankful for the twists and turns his career has taken. He fondly remembers his time in graduate school, and his experience as a working engineer made that time all the more worthwhile.

“Engineering experience is incredibly valuable because it gives context to what your interests are if you decide to go back to university,” he says.

The decision to return to graduate school is not easy.

“Engineering is such a financially rewarding career. Graduating, getting a good job and becoming comfortable in a lifestyle makes it hard to go back to university,” he says. “If you’re married, you have to share that decision and make sure everyone’s on the same page. It’s a real commitment.”

“Some would say they don’t want to take on the risk of going back to school, quitting a job and not knowing the outcome of their effort. For me, that was never a question. I recognized that someone would always hire an engineer. For me, it has really paid off.”