No stone left unturned: Finding solutions to our Clay Challenge

No stone left unturned: Finding solutions to our Clay Challenge

The COSIA Tailings Clay Challenge is wickedly complex as it involves finding ways to remove suspended clay particles from tailings. This step is a key requirement to dewatering these leftover mining materials, permanently storing the clays, and closing a mine at the end of its life. When we launched the Clay Challenge in 2017, we knew that the oil sands industry had engaged the worlds’ leading experts in its search for answers and was already advancing several potential solutions.

Two years later, we took a deliberate step back to identify less obvious candidates who could deliver the innovation that was needed. We asked ourselves who in the research community might have a potential solution but not be aware of or understand the Clay Challenge. We landed on a global research powerhouse, the National Research Council of Canada’s (NRC) Nanotechnology Research Centre located in Edmonton, Alberta. We knew NRC researchers had the technical chops to advance a solution, but we recognized they had probably never fully explored the technical needs of the Challenge.

Long term working relationship

“We’ve interacted with COSIA at various times for years,” says Andrew Myles Director, Research and Development, Nanotechnology Research Centre. “We recognize there is extreme value in exploring the interfaces of different disciplines such as nanotechnology and oil and gas engineering. It does take learning, patience and commitment but in our experience, the quality of collaboration equals the quality of the results.”

COSIA and its Tailings Environmental Priority Area team took action to engage the centre’s researchers to see how COSIA could fast track their understanding. We wanted to share our decades of research to put them in the picture and then jointly explore potential solutions that nanotechnology science could provide.

Getting on the same page

But how do you bring a group of researchers up to speed on decades of work? The approach was simple –  assemble everyone in one place. COSIA convened a meeting with the top nanotechnology researchers, industry specialists, university scientists from Alberta and the U.S., and representatives from NRC Ottawa, InnoTech Alberta, Natural Resources Canada (NRCan), the CanmetENERGY research centre in Devon and NAIT (Northern Alberta Institute of Technology).

Participants were provided with detailed briefs and background information on the latest science and technical advances in clay behaviour and spent time exploring different scientific approaches. They were then asked to come up with novel ways of addressing the tailings Clay Challenge. This was not a Dragon’s Den of critique, but a scientific discussion and validation of the merits of each approach, what might work, and how COSIA might improve research outcomes.

By the end of the day, the nanotechnology researchers had an innovative approach for dewatering tailings and proposed a research project designed to understand what was occurring at the particle level. Early stage research is usually lab scale and generally requires several years of development and testing to move it towards commercial application.

Value of collaboration

Not all research projects get off the ground for many reasons and this particular one didn’t, but sometimes that outcome is not as important as the sharing and discussion that helps to build collaboration. The COSIA event spun off several other streams of collaborative work on ways to transform tailings from waste into a material that speeds land and water reclamation.

The National Research Council (NRC) Energy, Mining and Environment (EME) Research Centre is now working with NAIT, for example, on a one year proof of concept study that involves scientist Heather Kaminsky, the NSERC Industrial Research Chair for Colleges in Oil Sands Tailings Management. Her Chair research program is supported by COSIA and its mining members. The NRC is also working closely with University of Alberta scientist, Mohtada Sadrzadeh, a leading expert in membrane technology for dewatering tailings. COSIA members are collaborating with Sadrzadeh too and supporting NAIT’s world class membrane testing facility.

“You have to be brave to reach out into new areas to generate new solutions, but it’s important,” Myles notes. “Collaboration allows the impact of innovation to broaden and it’s the way forward to solving pressing environmental issues.”


Interested in other stories like these? Check out these blogs about tailings research.

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