Clearing the path to clean water

Oilsands mining operations use hot water to help separate bitumen from the soil, creating ponds of toxic tailings. One of the major challenges the industry faces is finding ways to remove contaminants and reduce toxicity from the tailings water so the water can be recycled for other oilsands uses or discharged safely into the environment.

Mohamed Gamal El-Din, a professor in the U of A Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, is meeting the challenge head-on. As the NSERC Senior Industrial Research Chair in Oil Sands Tailings Water Treatment, Gamal El-Din’s goal is to develop and assess different water-treatment technologies and strategies to recycle or safely discharge water affected by the oilsands process into the environment.

He admits the task is technically daunting. Tailings water contains suspended solids, salts, organic and inorganic compounds, ammonia, chloride and trace metals, and other contaminants at concentrations that are toxic to many living organisms, including aquatic biota such as invertebrates and fish, and mammals.

“There is not going to be a quick, easy solution,” he says. “To come up with treatment systems and approaches will take some time, and you need to consider that there may be residuals coming out of the treatment processes themselves—how do we manage these residuals?”

A dedicated professor, Gamal El-Din says the NSERC Senior Industrial Research Chair Program is also helping to establish one of the best water management education and research programs in Canada, and perhaps in the world, positioning the U of A as a leader in water treatment and management research and innovation.

Realistically, Gamal El-Din knows the industry will continue to grow as global energy demands increase.

“It’s important to ensure that as the oilsands industry grows into the future, that it does so in a sustainable manner,” he says. “We want to make sure we are protecting both the environment and public health. We can’t just keep storing this water forever. You have to treat this water—you have to be sure there won’t be any adverse effects.”

Gamal El-Din’s hopes are that this water could one day be reused for irrigation or industrial applications, or it could eventually be safely released to the environment.

While there’s a lot of hard work ahead, Gamal El-Din believes the end result is well worth the effort. As the saying goes, failure is not an option.

“I have a young family and I want to be sure my kids are living in a healthy and sustainable environment. It’s not only treating water; it is about protecting both the environmental and public health.”