Tailings technology one step closer to commercialization

Mar 7, 2017

Alberta Innovates (AI) has been working on tailings treatment technologies that will allow more effective reuse and recycle of oil sands process-affected water.

There are currently over 1 billion m3 of Mature Fine Tailings (MFT) contained in approximately 10 tailings ponds of varying sizes and volumes

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If proven at commercial scale, this technology has the potential to treat about 200 million m3 of MFT and significantly progress the 2030 target of a 100 million m3 reduction of legacy mature fine tailings over and above government directives.

This year, one of our partners, EKS Solutions, reached an important scale-up benchmark. Initial testing of their EKS technology (reported in the 2014-15 Report on Outcomes) was positive, but the question remained: can it work at a large scale?

The EKS technology applies electricity in tailings ponds to cause water to be released and the remaining clay particles to consolidate and solidify.  This process allows oil sands mining companies to remove and recycle the water without the use of chemicals. This technology can dewater fine tailings while in the tailings ponds (in situ) avoiding the costs and energy required with repeated transportation and handling. When the tailings are dewatered, a stable landform is produced that is ready for final reclamation within a year or two compared to what could take 50 years or more with current technologies. The EKS technology could become commercially viable within the next five years.

Early stage testing last year, using a 25m3 tailings tank showed positive results and the potential for both technological and economic feasibility.

“We often see technologies fail during scale-up,” says Rick Nelson, Senior Director, Tailings Management at AI. “There are many variables that can’t be replicated in labs and at smaller test sizes. When you take a technology to a pilot or demonstration phase that’s when the critical technology assessment begins.”

Working with another AI subsidiary, C-FER Technologies, EKS recently passed an important milestone. Using a large 130m3 test tank the earlier results were replicated, suggesting the technology is scalable.

“We can provide a cost effective technology and offer a solids content that is as high or perhaps higher than any other technology out there,” says EKS president, Jim Micak. “This is based on our testing so far. Now we’re looking forward to seeing how the technology performs at a commercial scale.”

The next phase of this project is a field demonstration, which AI will be collaborating on. The field pilot will be located on an oil sands mining lease in 2017.