Predicting innovation success

oil sands tailings technology

When Yagmur Babaoglu was a PhD student at Carleton University in 2020, she won second place in the Canadian Geotechnical Society’s graduate student presentation competition. The national prize was awarded for her work identifying and creating a rapid method to assess consolidation parameters that would help determine the effectiveness of new tailings treatments. These treatments aim to remove water from oil sands tailings by consolidating or transforming them into a material that’s firm enough to be used in habitat reclamation. Babaoglu’s method predicted how firm the tailings would get.

Tailings are a challenge for the oil sands mining industry. They are leftover materials composed of sand, water and residual bitumen that are temporarily stored in tailings ponds for treatment. Some of the finer materials remain suspended in water for years and industry has been innovating to remove that excess water faster. Over the years, various technologies have been trialed with industry investment totaling more than $10 billion to date.

Babaoglu’s research looked at two important parameters: how fast water moved in tailings deposits and how easily tailings would compress. She trialed analytical techniques used in other industries to see whether they could accurately make these predictions for oil sands tailings. But conventional methods took months to gather data. Babaoglu wondered if there was a way to both speed up the process and improve accuracy by taking direct measurements instead. So, she designed and built a new instrument – complete with a robotic arm – from the ground up.

The consolidator instrument accurately measures water movement in tailings, delivering results in just a few weeks. It can be deployed cost-effectively during lab scale testing of a new technology before it goes to pilot – a breakthrough that will help industry increase the pace of innovation in tailings management by helping them select the treatment technology that is likely to perform the best. That in turn will lead to faster reclamation of tailings materials for use in land regeneration plans. 

“The automation and software was all newly designed. I had a lot of failures, but when it finally worked, that was my Eureka moment,” Babaoglu says. 

Babaoglu had always known she wanted to do something related to environment, but tailings research had never crossed her mind. After completing her masters’ degree, she approached Carleton’s Civil and Environmental Engineering professor Paul Simms for advice. Simms suggested she join his team of students working with COSIA members to investigate long-term dewatering (removing water) of amended oil sands tailings (tailings with specific materials added).

The research takes place through a Natural Science and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) Collaborative Research Development (CRD) program grant and COSIA members support the academic program because, when it comes to tailings treatment, the science is really important. “I was lucky,” Babaoglu says. “COSIA members were very involved in the program through my research advisory committee and I got a lot of feedback from them on my work.”