Advancing Industry Solutions

Applied research testing treatments to separate clean water from tailings

NAIT researcher Dr. Heather Kaminsky has set an ambitious professional goal for herself that is also intensely personal.

“My mission is that by the time my son turns 18, I would like to see tailings no longer be an issue for the oil sands industry,” says the tailings management expert who works at NAIT’s Centre for Oil Sands Sustainability.

Her son is six, which gives her about 12 years.

Kaminsky’s research focuses on separating and cleaning the water and mud that make up the massive amount of fluid fine tailings left behind when bitumen is removed from oil sands. There are currently about 1.2 billion cubic metres of them in Alberta.

“I would like to see tailings no longer be an issue for the oil sands industry.”

Every barrel of bitumen that comes out of the oil sands produces between one and one-and-a-half barrels of tailings – that’s millions of barrels every day, she adds. “It’s a problem today and the problem is getting bigger. Even if we shut down the oil sands today, that would not solve the problem and in fact, it would probably compound it because you’d lose all those (industry) experts and you’d have to shift that whole burden on to the taxpayer.”

Helping industry improve the technologies and processes to treat tailings is Kaminsky’s passion. It mitigates the environmental legacy of the oil sands and can help industry operate more efficiently and cost-effectively, she says.

“I’m trying to help them be the best they can be and I’m doing the work that I think is important,” she says.

The applied research that’s done at a polytechnic like NAIT involves researchers working directly with companies to find solutions to issues affecting them in the field – solutions that can be implemented at the speed of industry.

Kaminsky did her PhD in materials engineering and knew early in her career she wanted to focus on research. When she started working in oil sands research – particularly working to get water out of clay, “I became obsessed,” she says with a laugh.

Now she works with big industrial partners, one of which has made NAIT its clearinghouse to test new chemical treatments for its tailings reduction operation. She has another project in the works that would involve a consortium of industry partners working together to help solve the tailings problem.

NAIT’s Centre for Oil Sands Sustainability is well-suited to collaboration, says Kaminsky. Intellectual property remains with the industry client, and researchers’ primary purpose is to solve industry problems. They can easily collaborate with colleagues at other NAIT research facilities like the Centre for Boreal Research, which works on forest reclamation. Researchers there are looking at using plants “like straws” to help de-water tailings, for example.

Does Kaminsky think her self-imposed deadline of 12 years to solve these complex problems is achievable? Yes, she says, with characteristic enthusiasm. “I feel like it is. I feel like we’ve made a lot of progress already.”

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