ASTech award recognizes research to treat and reclaim oil sands process-affected water

Oil and gas continues to be the driving force of the Alberta economy. However, Canadian reserves, almost entirely composed of oil sands, will only be globally viable if they are competitive in both cost and environmental footprint. Much of the public concern about the industry is on oil sands process-affected water that is a direct result of extraction.

Oil sands process-affected water is a highly complex mixture of sands, silts, salts, heavy metals and organic compounds. It is currently stored in tailings ponds that now occupy more than 220 km2. Tailing ponds are a short-term solution to a long-term problem.

A better approach

Treatment solutions are required to truly reclaim the land and the oil sands process-affected water. For the past 10 years, this complex problem has been the primary research focus of Dr. Mohamed Gamal El-Din, Professor of Environmental Engineering in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Alberta.

“Tailings water has actually been stored in Fort McMurray tailing ponds forever and none of this water has been released,” explains Gamal El-Din. “This has to change so there has to be new approaches to reclamation and treatment to ensure that once the water is reclaimed or treated and released back to the receiving environment, there are no, or minimal, adverse effects.”

Gamal El-Din has researched and developed reclamation strategies that take both active and passive approaches to treating oil sands process-affected water. Gamal El-Din explains that energy is required in an active approach, whereas a passive approach needs very little energy to operate and requires either no maintenance or minor intermittent maintenance. Depending on the need of the oil sands producer, Gamal El-Din’s research has provided a variety of effective solutions.

“It is sustainable because we’re trying to come up with solutions that would be more easily implemented, solutions that require little energy and also solutions that would require very little supervision once they are established,” he says.

Different treatment systems use physical, chemical or biological means to filter, treat and reclaim the water. As an illustration, in the biofiltration system developed by Gamal El-Din, all three approaches are used to eliminate toxic substances at each stage of the treatment processes. This passive system requires very little energy to detoxify the water.

“It’s one of the approaches we’ve been working on and seems to be quite effective,” says Gamal El-Din.

Beyond the integration of multi-stage biofiltration processes, Gamal El-Din has also developed new materials in the laboratory to improve the treatment of oil sands process-affected water. The development of this material is exciting because its properties allow for unique applications in the systems.

“We’ve been developing some materials called carbon xerogel. We can use them as adsorbents or for advanced oxidation so you can have adsorption and advanced oxidation at the same time.”

Solutions for all aspects of reclamation

In addition to releasing reclaimed water safely to the environment, proactive water management strategies that include increased reuse and recycling of process water have the potential to slow the accumulation of process water and deliver additional ecosystem benefits by reducing water demand from the Athabasca River.

Moreover, the innovations from Dr. Gamal El-Din’s research will provide decision-makers with the engineering and scientific evidence necessary to strengthen the social license to operate Alberta’s oil sands industry and enable a more sustainable development of Canada’s oil sands.

“The approach for the oil sands operators is to reuse the water in industry applications so as to limit the amount of water from the environment needed for their operations,” says Gamal El-Din. “But the major goal is to treat it to release it back to the environment.”

Gamal El-Din began his research career in municipal wastewater treatment. In 2006, seeing the need for better treatment of water in tailing ponds, Gamal El-Din transitioned his expertise to oil sands process-affected water.

Gamal El-Din adds, “I saw a need there for this water to be treated, reclaimed and released back into the environment. I thought maybe that would be my legacy and my contribution to this industry, to this province, to this country. I’m passionate about research and developing new ways for wastewater treatment.”

Support for Gamal El-Din’s work has been extensive. Industry, government and the University of Alberta have all been major supporters of his work. Gamal El-Din adds that all the support has been facilitated with substantial financial support from NSERC.

“There is tremendous support for research in Alberta,” he adds.

Moving forward, Gamal El-Din’s plan is to continue with the research and optimize the reclamation approaches to create a toolbox for different aspects of reclamation. His hope is that this solution will be implemented on a large scale by industry, the Alberta government and Alberta environmental regulatory agencies.

“We hope this process will be prosperous in the future and that it can grow in a way that is sustainable and environmentally friendly.”