Training Microbes to Do a Better Job

OPE group_oil sands water treatment researchers

Mathijs Martens was sitting around a barbecue conversing with friends and family when the topic of the oil sands came up. “We were talking about some of the environmental issues that oil sands companies manage, and I thought, ‘my friends and I have a biotechnology background, maybe we could make a proposal to help’,” Martens recalls.

The three graduates had specialized in biotechnology, the science of harnessing biological processes, at the Delft University of Technology in The Netherlands. “We learned how to apply specific tricks to train microbes– the smallest form of life–to adapt to different environments so that they evolve to do their job better,” Martens explains. “We can train them to get better at what they do.” One of the things certain microbes can do is clean up water from industrial processes by breaking down contaminants.

Spurred by this initial conversation, the three friends founded a start-up company, OPE Group, which now operates out of rented lab space in the Dutch town of Leiden. Martens is Managing Director. “We had the idea to make the world a little better by applying what we had learned at university to solve some real-world problems,” Martens said.

Six years later, their company is tackling a number of industrial issues, including a specific COSIA challenge. The challenge is to identify better ways to clean up oil sands process water, which is continuously recycled in oil sands operations. The problem is the water accumulates contaminants and steadily deteriorates in quality over time.

COSIA gave the OPE Group the go-ahead in 2019 and the company began searching for naturally occurring microbes that had a natural ability to break down contaminants in process water. The microbes are housed in bioreactors, closed containers that support a biologically active environment. 

By selectively modifying the environment within these bioreactors and altering things like temperature and acidity, the OPE Group can increase the diversity of these microbe communities and encourage them to adapt to different conditions. “We force the microbes to evolve and perform better,” Martens said.

The three researchers first identified microbe populations with the right characteristics with the goal of cultivating a diverse population. Now, they are testing these populations to narrow down the ones that are the most adept at degrading contaminants in process water.

Right now, the focus is on cleaning up naphthenic acids in process water, but down the road the technology could potentially address other contaminants too. “It’s a work in progress,” Martens says. “We need to first confirm that the technology is viable before we think about commercial application.” 

New and innovative water treatment technologies like these could help improve environmental performance in the oil sands by reducing water use in operations and increasing the rate at which process water can be recycled. They also have enormous potential in other industries around the globe, from municipal water treatment plants to forestry and agriculture.

The OPE Group submitted their technology solution through COSIA’s E-TAP portal. Innovators can find out more about the E-TAP process here.  

Want to find out about other water treatment technologies that COSIA members are working on? Check out our Water Research Report.

Interested in other innovation stories about how COSIA members are reducing their environmental impact in the oil sands, see the COSIA Features section on our website. 

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