Waterless oil sands extraction

One of the greatest challenges in mining is waste—specifically, tailings ponds. Toxic in high concentrations, tailings are a lingering byproduct of the water-based processes used to separate resources from the ore. Northern Alberta’s massive oil sands operations play a key role in Canada’s economic prosperity and in fuelling society, but no permanent solution has been discovered to efficiently deal with the tailings created by oil sands mining operations, so the tailings accumulate in large ponds.

For more than a decade, the University of Alberta has been a world leader in exploring, through partnerships with oil sands producers and government, ways to solidify and reclaim these ponds. The university is also researching ways to eliminate tailings ponds completely. Nonaqueous extraction means separating oil from sand without the use of water and avoids the resulting tailings production and storage. Instead, organic solvents could directly extract the oil and allow the dry sand and clay to be stacked back in the mine pit.

In pursuit of this goal, the U of A has become a recognized centre of oil sands extraction and of interfacial and surface engineering. The university has built teams of respected researchers passionate about solving society’s problems and responsibly developing our resources, along with world-class research facilities in which to carry out their work.

Research facilities supporting nonaqueous extraction and tailing management include:

  • Institute for Oil Sands Innovation (IOSI) was established in 2005 in partnership with Imperial Oil and the University of Alberta Faculty of Engineering to find breakthrough technologies for oil sands processing. To date, IOSI has total funding amounting to $51-million and a growing list of partners including Imperial Oil, Alberta Innovates – Energy and Environment Solutions, the Faculty of Engineering, Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance (COSIA), NRC, NRCan and NSERC. IOSI supports more than 160 top researchers around the world including those working to minimize or eliminate the use of water in oil sands extraction.
  • Oil Sands and Coal Interfacial Engineering Facility is focused on bitumen characterization research, improved processes for oil sands extraction, modelling interfacial and transport behaviour of colloidal suspensions and emulsions and novel coal cleaning technology.
  • The Oil Sands Tailings Research Facility, located in Devon, Alberta, supports fundamental tailings research at a pilot scale (600 and 2000 kg solids per hour) and accommodates multiple, concurrent interdisciplinary research projects.  It is led by Dr. Ward Wilson, NSERC Industrial Research Chair in Oil Sands Tailings Geotechnique, a world leader in mine waste management systems.
  • Canadian Centre for Clean Coal/Carbon and Mineral Processing Technologies (C5MPT) is Canada’s first research and education centre that supports low impact mineral resource development. C5MPT is supported by government and industry partners: Capital Power Corporation, Teck Resources Limited, Hatch Ltd., Nexen Energy ULC, CMG Reservoir Simulation Foundation, Glencore Canada Corporation, Mancal Corporation, and Alberta Innovates – Energy and Environment Solutions.

Leading researchers in nonaqueous extraction include:

  • Qingxia (Chad) Liu is scientific director of C5MPT and a co-leader in the Sino-Canadian Energy and Environment Research and Education Initiative (SCENEREI), a partnership between the University of Alberta and Tsinghua University in China. Researchers at these two leading universities are developing innovative and efficient technologies that will help address global issues of the impact of energy production on the environment.
  • Zhenghe Xu is the Canada Research Chair in Minerals Processing and holds the NSERC Industrial Research Chair in Oil Sands Engineering. His research addresses oil sands processing, fine particle processing, interfacial phenomena and engineering nanoparticles and composites for bio and environmental applications. Dr. Xu’s fundamental research is establishing a scientific foundation for improved bitumen extraction.
  • Joao Soares is the Canada Research Chair in Advanced Polymer Reaction Engineering and Campus Alberta Innovation Program Chair in Interfacial Polymer Engineering for Oil Sands Processing. His research interests include water-soluble polymers for oil sands technology, characterization and fractionation of polymer microstructures and in-situ polymer nanocomposites. Polymers have the potential to impact many aspects of oil sands production—from  extraction to tailings management.
  • Qi Liu serves as scientific director of the Institute for Oil Sands Innovation and is the Ron Nolan/Hatch Professor of Sustainable Energy and Mineral Process Technologies.  As the head of IOSI, Dr. Liu brings together top-flight researchers and industry leaders to realize a vision of “oil sands operations that use little or no water, consume less energy, generate lower greenhouse gas emissions and yield high-quality products at lower costs.”