Nowadays, one popular research topic that I hear discussed is cleaning up oil sand tailings. As Alberta Oil Sands is a relatively new area of study, I wanted to comment on what I hear from people who work with or in oil sand tailings.
Offshore drilling and shale oil drilling have always been risky and damaged the environment. For the most part, this has been “out of sight, out of mind”. On the other hand, oil sands are on the surface – making extraction safer – but allow environmental damages to be visible. One major contributor to environmental damage is the oil sand tailing ponds. In an effort to restore the environment and change the perception of oil sand by cleaning up the oil sand tailings, the Canadian government wants to significantly reduce oil sand tailing ponds within the next few years – which is a tight time line.
The most efficient way to remove the solids in the oil sand tailing turns out to be the common technique of flocculation, which has been successfully used in various industries. With the increase in importance of the oil sand due to Canada’s stable oil supply (Canada has the world’s second largest oil reserve and is a stable nation), flocculation will become a more important method of cleaning the oil sand tailings.
In the future, we expect more flocculation research in both universities and industry. One example of the type of flocculation research we will see more of is from CSIRO’s Phil Fawell. In this experiment, the floc formation was monitored and changed process parameters in order to create the optimal floc to increase settling rate and ultimately the throughput of the process.