Transforming tailings water with coke

oil sands water treatment

Warren Zubot is leading the team behind an exciting innovation that’s targeting faster, more effective reclamation of tailings areas.

COSIA member Syncrude takes its environmental responsibilities seriously. That’s why it is always looking for new and better ways to improve its sustainability and environmental performance. Take Warren, a Senior Engineering Associate who is on a mission to find a way to treat tailings water for safe release.

Tailings, a byproduct of extracting bitumen from oil sand, are stored in tailings ponds and are a mixture of water, sand, clay, fine solids, residual hydrocarbons and salts. Although these ponds are the source of water that is recycled and used in the company’s production processes, their growth is something Syncrude wants to avoid. Having the ability to treat and safely release tailings water will eliminate the need for long-term storage and allow faster and more effective return of land to a natural state.

That’s where Warren’s innovation comes in.

Applying principles that are similar to a home water filter using activated carbon, Warren’s technology uses petroleum coke from Syncrude’s upgrader to remove the unwanted compounds from tailings water, transforming it so that it can safely support aquatic life and other downstream uses. 

Once tailings water becomes safe for release, tailings areas can be returned to a productive natural state, making this water treatment innovation a huge step in solving a major reclamation challenge.

After a successful small-scale pilot in 2012, Syncrude contracted one of the region’s leading Indigenous businesses to design and construct a full-scale pilot treatment facility, as well as manage the ongoing monitoring of treated water. The facility began operation in June 2019.

“It takes a lot of outside-the-box thinking to create something that’s never been done before. It took a lot of collaboration across Syncrude teams along with the skills of a local Indigenous business to make it possible,” Zubot says. 

Syncrude has engaged indigenous communities and other regional stakeholders to educate them about the project, seek feedback and ensure the company works with its neighbours to mitigate their concerns.

As always, Syncrude shares insights with its industry partners through COSIA, as well as with academic institutions to advance knowledge and ensure results are transparent and publicly available in peer-reviewed scientific literature.

Interested in more stories like these? Check out these blogs:
•    Mythbusting: Water EPA
•    Innovative solutions to sustainable oil
•    Engaging local wisdom

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