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August 23, 2019

This is Oil Country

NAIT’s research aims to change an industry in short order

Close your eyes and imagine the world around you has transformed into goopy, sticky, soft chocolate pudding.

Delicious, right? Well, if you tried to stand on it, you’d sink. If you tried to build anything on it, the structure would collapse. Eventually the pudding itself would constrict and leave a watery mess behind.

What does chocolate pudding have to do with research into the oil sands? Nothing and everything.

That’s because chocolate pudding tells us a little bit about tailings, the byproduct of extracting oil from the sands. And, at NAIT’s Centre for Oil Sands Sustainability, there are barrels and barrels of tailings for researchers to examine and experiment on, all in a push to create cleaner solutions for the industry — and a more stable way to rebuild the land that’s currently being mined.

“What we try to do is to take the tailings, which are the consistency of chocolate milk, and hopefully get them to a consistency of a chocolate bar,” says Dr. Heather Kaminsky. “Right now, we’re at the point where we’ve got them to a chocolate pudding, or a chocolate ganache.”

If the tailings can become bars, they’ll be solid enough to use to rebuild the environment. If they’re smushy, a hill made out of tailings will eventually collapse under its own weight. So, the key is to remove the water as effectively as possible. And, as Kaminsky warns, the researchers also need to make sure that the solution they come up with doesn’t create problematic side effects. They don’t want to kill with the cure.

Right now, experiments are using plants to remove water from the tailings. Willow, an awfully thirsty plant, should be especially effective. The problem is that tailings don’t have a lot of nitrogen, which plants need. But waste products from meatpacking and pulp and paper plants do have that needed nitrogen. The scientists are trying to find out if combining waste from various industries can actually be a good thing.

“One man’s waste is the solution to another man’s problem,” says Kaminsky.

It’s this kind of out-of-the-box thinking that Andrea Sedgwick, the Ledcor Applied Research Chair in Oil Sands Sustainability, hopes will translate from the lab to real-world practice in a short time. The Centre, located on the main floor of NAIT’s new Productivity and Innovation Centre, is a blend of science and commerce. Experiments are performed in response to real-world needs. Industry provides support and sponsorship to the work being done in the NAIT labs. The goal is not to simply deliver an academic paper for the sake of academics; Sedgwick says that the plan is to take the advancements made in the Centre and take them right to the oil sands, in “short- and medium-term time frames.”

“We work with industry, and they give us information that helps us move technology forward,” says Sedgwick.

FUEL ALCHEMY

In one lab, tubes and beakers are filled with liquid samples; VOLVO OBERON is written with marker on masking tape.

In this experiment, researchers work to take methanol, a byproduct of the pulp and paper industry, and transform it into dimethyl ether (DME), a fuel that burns very efficiently and is seen as a green alternative to the dirty diesel that powers trucks. Volvo is a major player in the trucking industry, so a better fuel source for the Swedish giant’s products is a big-time objective.

“It’s about creating a sustainable solution using a resource we already have an abundance of,” says Jeremiah Bryksa, a research technologist at NAIT who is working on the project.

This experiment is another example of how the Centre wants its research to quickly be taken to the real world.

On the main floor, there are more testing sites, including a blue chamber large enough to fit a small car. When the chamber is sealed, the temperature can be turned higher than the hottest summer day or to absolute frigid temperatures. Components can be tested in the chamber to see if they can withstand Alberta’s extreme weather conditions.

There’s a specialized microscope on a floating table in a climate-controlled room sealed to shut out vibrations. The laser measurements are so delicate and precise, that even the whirr of an air conditioner or heater could throw off the numbers. In it, researchers can do what Sedgwick calls “autopsies” on failed membranes that filter water.

“If the membrane fails, can we see which mineral caused that failure?” she asks. “But, if an air conditioner came on, that would be bad.”

THE POLITICS

But, can the advances made in this lab change the attitudes of those who want the oil sands shut down? Can they calm those who don’t want to see Canada ever build another pipeline?

Sedgwick says that, when she goes around the world, the reactions to the work being done to clean up the oil sands have been positive.

“People are receptive to hearing about the innovations that are occurring to protect the environment,” she says. And she echoes the words of former prime minister Stephen Harper: “The only people who don’t like Canadian oil are Canadians.”

Kaminsky says that the research itself won’t change minds. It’s the results that will. She has a seven-year-old son, and she’s inspired to give him a better future.

“By the time he’s 18, I want to show him that we’ve solved the problem. That’s what gets me up every day.”

And the proof will be in the pudding, er, bars.

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