NAIT: Improving methodologies in measurement could improve oilsands efficiencies

Andrea Sedgwick, Ledcor Applied Research Chair in Oil Sands Sustainability. Image: NAIT

Since becoming NAIT’s Ledcor Applied Research Chair in Oil Sands Sustainability this April, Andrea Sedgwick has been charged with the work of revitalizing the Centre for Oil Sands Sustainability (NARCOSS).

The centre’s goal has always been to bridge the gap between existing oilsands environmental research and the commercialization of real-world solutions for tailings pond management. But over the last two years, it has broadened that focus to include working on technologies and products for water treatment in both SAGD and mining.

Recognizing the principle that accurate measurement is foundational to any work of optimization, one of the projects that Sedgwick is working on is improving the methylene blue index.

“The methylene blue index is a test that allows you to determine the amount of clay in a solid or wet sample. It’s a well-known test in the industry that was developed in the early ’90s. But over time, it has been determined that it’s too subjective,” says Sedgwick, who brings to the table 20-plus years of upstream surface oilsands development expertise in mining, extraction, tailings and water management.

The amount of clays in the oilsands is important, not only in tailings, where the clays end up, but also within extraction processes. Understanding exactly how much clay is being introduced into a processing plant allows the plant to react better to this material, leading to better bitumen recovery.

“So one of the aspects that we’ve been looking at with Suncor is what the effect of flocculation is on the methylene blue test,” Sedgwick says.

“Tailings are mostly treated with flocculant in the oilsands. This allows the water to separate out from the rest of the solids. But when you add that chemical to your tailings, the interesting question is ‘What does that do to your test determining the clay content? Does it skew the number?’”

Determining the effect of flocculant on the methylene blue index is just a small portion of the work the centre is doing with partners such as Suncor and Air Liquide.

With Air Liquide, the centre is looking at several novel technologies that the company and its partners have identified for testing and piloting in Alberta. These include produced water treatment solutions and services in the oil and gas industry, a novel power-generation process for industrial applications using raw natural gas and emission-reduction technologies.

“Our centre is helping industry to improve their methodologies and improve their operations. That’s the key. We’re not doing research. We’re doing development, things that are going to give companies the information they can use in the field,” Sedgwick says.

That means in its methylene blue index work, NAIT’s findings in the next six months or year could be applied in the field right away.

“NARCOSS is uniquely positioned to provide expertise and facilities for the evaluation and advancement of promising technologies in oilsands sustainability,” says Sean Wells, Senior Engineering Adviser, Suncor.

“NARCOSS offers a key service to technology providers through direct links to technical representatives of industry and provides team members with a clear understanding of the needs of the industry in advancing environmental and sustainable solutions.”