Clay poses perplexing challenge

tailings oil sands

Heather Kaminsky has a passion for clay and a professional goal of solving one of the most complex challenges in oil sands mining. A materials engineer, Kaminsky is the NSERC Industrial Research Chair for Colleges (IRCC) in Oil Sands Tailings Management at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology (NAIT). COSIA is one of the research partners. “By 2030, I want us to have a common solution for managing clay in tailings. I do think it’s possible to achieve it in that timeframe,” she says. 

This knowledge will help industry improve the environmental performance of the energy that Canadians use every day and could potentially have worldwide application. “Tailings management is a challenge in many mining industries globally,” Kaminsky adds.

Clay is a problematic component in fluid fine tailings – the clay and sand materials mixed with water that remain after oil sands mining. This mix is stored in tailings ponds where the clay and sand settle over time, while water rises to the surface. Most of the water is then recycled back into the extraction process.

Kaminsky works with colleagues at NAIT and in industry to improve environmental sustainability in the oil sands through research and by testing innovative ideas and putting them into practice. “It’s so important to bring different people with different perspectives to the table to find solutions,” she says.

The end goal with tailings is to remove enough water and leftover minerals so that it becomes solid enough to support land reclamation. However, clay by its nature slows down the separation of solids from water and prevents tailings from consolidating quickly – often by years. Industry is looking for innovative ways to speed up this consolidation process so it can reclaim land faster and restore disturbed sites to a natural habitat sooner.

Members of Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance (COSIA) have partnered with NAIT to develop solutions to address these types of challenges. “Fluid fine tailings are like chocolate milk in the tailings pond,” Kaminsky explains. “Right now, commercially available technology and processes can get them to the consistency of chocolate pudding, but that’s usually not good enough for land reclamation purposes. We need to get them to chocolate bar consistency.”

Kaminsky’s work fills an important gap in industry’s understanding of tailings management by developing a better way to measure consolidation. “We’re all using different yardsticks,” she says. “From a technical perspective, what constitutes ‘good’? We need to agree on a common benchmark and common tools.”

In addition to being an NSERC chairholder, Kaminsky has also been inducted into the Alberta chapter of SHEInnovates. The global initiative, led by the United Nations, was created to celebrate and inspire women innovators and entrepreneurs around the world. Kaminsky is one of several Albertans to be awarded this honour.

Interested in more stories like these? Read more.
•    What are tailings? 
•    Tailings 101: Understanding tailings 
•    Low tech solution to an industry first 

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