Managing tailings from oilsands mining operations is one the most vexing challenges facing developers as they work to improve their environmental performance.
Simply put, tailings ponds are an eyesore and a greenhouse gas emitter and create air quality problems for nearby communities.
Titanium Corporation, however, sees the tailings challenge as an opportunity, says company president and chief executive officer Scott Nelson. The company, which began more than 15 years ago with the goal of mining tailings for heavy minerals, has built on its initial mineral-extraction technologies and now has viable, commercially ready technologies to pull out much of the remaining bitumen and solvents from the froth treatment tailings stream along with the heavy minerals.
Oilsands mines produce two types of tailings: extraction tailings and froth treatment tailings. While froth treatment tailings only account for around 10 per cent of total mining tailings, they play a significant role in the overall environmental impact of the tailings stream, says Nelson. After froth treatment, the tailings that remain still contain significant bitumen that slows down remediation in tailings ponds. Some solvents used to remove bitumen from the tailings also remain and, combined with the bitumen, result in methane emissions that add to greenhouse gas emissions, and volatile organic compound (VOC) emissions that cause local air quality issues. The stream also contains radioactive compounds and, of course, contaminated water.
The Titanium process, which the company has trademarked Creating Value from Waste (CVW), mitigates these environmental concerns while generating revenue streams from the recovered bitumen, solvents and heavy minerals, says Nelson. He notes that the froth tailings contain almost 100 per cent of the heavy minerals from the overall tailings stream.
Implementing the CVW process at a single 250,000-bbl/d oilsands mine could annually cut greenhouse gas emissions by as much as one megatonne, cut VOC emissions by 10 kilotonnes, and through recycling, save around 10 million cubic metres of water, according to company estimates. It would also remove around 800 tonnes of radioactive materials from the tailings stream (see infographic 1).
On the economic front, it would annually capture around two million barrels of solvents and bitumen, along with around 52,000 tonnes of zircon and 25,000 tonnes of high-grade titanium. (see infographic 2)
Titanium began testing oilsands tailings for its heavy mineral resource in the early 2000s and found commercial volumes of titanium and zircon, along with rare earth minerals. Through a series of pilots leading up to the construction of a $7-million facility in Regina, it figured out how to separate and recover the minerals from the tailings sand.
“The company had made good progress on the titanium and zircon but hadn’t done much on the bitumen recovery,” explains Nelson. “We stepped back and said there is a big opportunity here. We need to get the bitumen and solvent out as well. This was also just about the time the environmental movement identified the tailings ponds as a big concern.”
With a $3-million grant and its own capital, Titanium began a research and development effort that eventually involved as many as 12 different partners from government, industry and the research community to test processes for removing the hydrocarbons and the minerals from the stream.
“We were very successful,” he says. “The next step was to do a large demonstration pilot, which we did at Canmet at Devon’s froth treatment facility.”
From 2010 to 2014, the company continued running a series of pilot projects and building out its equipment. Then SNC-Lavalin was brought in to do a scale-up of Titanium’s technology to a full-scale project.
“We presented it to the government and oil companies,” says Nelson. “We started discussions to get the first project going but were interrupted by the price crash of 2014.”
But Nelson remains optimistic Titanium will ultimately get a commercial facility up and running. One big reason is compelling economics. Titanium estimates at $50-WTI oil, a CVW facility could pay out in less than five years and generate an unlevered internal rate of return of 17 per cent.
A second, but just as important, reason is that both government and industry are under growing pressure to deal with environmental issues. And a third, Alberta-specific reason is growing pressure to diversify the economy.
“In the last year or so, two new governments in Alberta and Ottawa were elected and have as part of their mandate action on climate change,” says Nelson. “And there are also the attacks on the reputation of the oilsands and the challenges of getting pipelines built. If we can show the world we are doing a lot of good things, it will assist in getting pipelines built.”
Nelson says Titanium has spent around $80 million getting its CVW to the commercial stage. He believes government has a key role in leading the effort to get new technologies like his companies into the field—not just through legislation but also through funding.
“It’s one thing to have plans, but it comes down to spending money,” he explains, pointing to Silicon Valley’s tech industry as an example of how government money can spur on the creation of an industry. “At the early stages when there is some risk, government money goes a long way. Getting a first adopter is very challenging, particularly in natural resources because of the scale. There are significant risks.”
Nelson also believes the Alberta government should take a close look at the potential of the creation of a heavy mineral mining industry at the same time.
“Recently there’s been more interest in economic diversification, and heavy minerals could be a nice complementary clean industry to the oilsands,” he explains. “The majority of the world’s heavy minerals come from Australia, which is a mature industry although it still has a lot of resources. Africa is there, but they have greater challenges.”
How great is the potential for heavy mineral production from froth treatment tailings?
“We could recover five per cent of the world supply from one site and 15 per cent of the world supply from all sites,” says Nelson. “We could be a significant player as an exporter. It could generate hundreds of millions in revenues at an attractive cost as it is already mined.
“We refer to them as green minerals,” he says. “Because they’re already mined, it takes very little energy to produce them, and that’s becoming more and more important for people who source materials. And the mines would last 50 years, whereas a typical heavy mineral mine lasts 10 years; 25 years is a long time for a mine. And they don’t decline—production is steady.”
But the company isn’t standing still waiting for funding. It is now in the early stages of a research project to capture bitumen from legacy tailings ponds. The bitumen has accumulated in the ponds over time and is slowing the remediation process.