ECA Review Journalist
Scientists don’t fit into a business model of pre-determined goals and objectives. They often do their best work or stumble unto revolutionary ideas totally by accident. Such was an example when one of Syncrude’s research associates, Warren Zubot, got an idea while taking a course on water treatment at the University of Alberta. “Is it possible that our coke (fine carbon particles produced during the first stage of upgrading) could help purify the water in Syncrude’s tailings ponds?” Similar to how a Brita works.
Zubot works at Syncrude’s Research facility in Edmonton and briefly joined newspaper reporters during their tour of Syncrude’s Mildred Lake site in August, 2012.
“Carbon coke is one water treatment option that we are looking at,” said Zubot. “It looks good in the lab and now we have a pilot project to see if it can be a viable business and scientific option. We have dyked off 600 cubic metres of a tailings pond to replicate what we were able to do in the lab,” said Zubot. It is one of many options that are being tested or employed to deal with toxic tailings and dead ducks.
During the research facility tour, Research Chemist Dr. Richard Paproski, said, “Syncrude has a reputation for allowing its employees to dream up new ideas, test and pilot them.”
Research & development (R&D)
With an annual budget of $60 million and approximately 100 employees, Syncrude is unique and innovative in being the only company in the oil sands industry that operates a dedicated state-of-the art research and development facility.
It has received 137 Canadian and U.S. patents for technological developments in its 40 years of existence. “We share our technological developments with our competitors,” said Paproski. It contains a working mini-plant that processes two tons of oil sands each week and a tailings lab (aka, the mud lab) that does extensive research on the reclamation of the mines and tailings ponds.
Syncrude has disturbed 20,000 hectares of boreal forest, wetlands, lakes and streams. Cheryl Robb, Syncrude media relations toured the media contingent through a number of areas at various stages of reclamation. To date, over 4500 hectares are in reclamation. Certification of reclamation takes at least 20 years.
Gateway Hill, a 104-acre area former over-burden storage area, received the first reclamation certification in the oil sands industry in 2008. This area was reclaimed in the early 1980s.
To receive certification, trees and vegetation have to be established, wetlands restored and native birds and animals re-established. The return of birds and beavers are important indicators in that they are the first to return to reclaimed areas.
Native seeds are collected during clearing and maintained at a greenhouse in Smoky Lake. This greenhouse then provides original native seedlings for Syncrude’s re-forestation program. Syncrude has planted over 5.8 million tree seedlings, some of which are 25 year-old trees today.
In addition to the well-publicized problem of toxic tailings ponds, another challenge for Syncrude is reclaiming wetlands and groundwater.
As a mining process, Syncrude removes trees and vegetation, then the forest floor layer (containing seeds and roots), 100 feet of overburden and finally mines oil sands up to 100 feet deep.
Groundwater is found underground in the cracks and spaces in soil, sand and rock called aquifers. Wetlands are peat-land, marshy areas that are giant water filters and home for millions of aquatic animals, microorganisms, birds and animals. Dr. Lee Barber, a Syncrude-funded chair at the University of Saskatchewan has done extensive hydro-geology to introduce groundwater back into reclaimed mined areas.
A pilot 17-hectare fen wetland project has been built at the former east mine at Mildred Lake. Peat and vegetation material is placed over a layer of composite tailings and sand. A pilot fen is the first of its kind in the region and Syncrude officials are very optimistic for its success.