2014 Winner: Innovation In Oil Sands Research Sponsored By Syncrude Canada Ltd.
Tailing Ponds as Active Ecosystems
In the media, tailing ponds are frequently portrayed as toxic ponds of death, full of contaminants and unable to support life. Dr. Julia Foght, professor of Biological Sciences at the University of Alberta, is conducting research to prove that isn’t the case.
Foght’s fundamental scientific contribution to oil sands research has been the definition of the tailings ponds as active ecosystems that interact with the environment. Tailings ponds are engineered systems where residual oil sands mine waste is stored. The waste is a combination of clay, water, hydrocarbons and residual bitumen.
“Who would think those tailings ponds have an incredible biodiversity of microbes in them? It’s just really unexpected and to me really interesting,” Foght says.
As an undergraduate student at the University of Alberta, Foght worked during the summer with professor Dr. Don Westlake, Canadian pioneer in hydrocarbon degradation.
“For example, we looked at microbes that will break down oil spills for bioremediation. I thought that was so cool; I had never heard of that before,“ Foght says. “I got a summer job with him, worked as a technician for awhile then I thought, ‘it’s nice to do his research but I’d really like to do my own research.’”
Inspired by the work she conducted with Westlake, Foght continues to research bacteria that break down hydrocarbons in oil spills and tailing ponds.
In 1983, Foght and her colleagues became one of the first teams of microbiologists to examine the ponds. Syncrude Canada Ltd. asked them to see if there were any microbes in their tailings ponds, but Foght was skeptical.
“I have to say I thought we weren’t going to find anything. The fact that we found substantial numbers of microbes in the ponds really stuck in my head,” Foght says.
Although they published the first paper on the microbiology of tailings ponds, they didn’t pursue the research further at that time. By the early 2000’s, a combination of opportunity and newly-developed research tools led Foght back to the tailings ponds to continue the research she started nearly 20 years prior.
“It was my joy to take those tools and apply them to bugs in the tailings ponds and there was no looking back: we just kept finding one new thing after another.”
She adds, “It’s that discovery, that unanticipated outcome, that is just so amazing.”
Foght’s research and the discoveries she has made in the tailings ponds have been critical to further understanding the ecosystem present in tailings ponds.
For example, we now know there are over 100 million microbes per litre of tailings fluid. Even more surprising than the staggering number of organisms is the discovery of approximately 1,000 different microbial species, some of which have not been found anywhere else in the world. Through their patient work, Foght and her colleagues are discovering how these microbes interact in the ponds and promote biodegradation of chemicals. These findings help predict long-term toxicity of reclamation strategies.
Furthermore, Foght’s lab is helping promote general knowledge about the presence of these microbes to industry. Different practices could affect the ponds differently if the microbiology isn’t considered. Foght is helping make the life in these ponds accessible and applicable for the people who manage them.
“There might be unintended consequences that we can avoid if you consider the microbes,” Foght says. “Looking way into the future, what role will the microbes play in either the success or failure of the reclamation strategies implemented?”
Foght says she is already shifting in her mind into the reclamation potential of her research. From the knowledge base that Foght and her colleagues created, they will look towards the future of these sites.
“We are trying to predict what the microbes might do in those reclamation areas and to do it better and faster or prevent (bad) things from happening to good reclamation strategies, ” she says.
“Definitely the trajectory we’re trying to look at is not just what is happening in the ponds right now or what happened in the past to make them this way, but instead using what we know now and applying this to future scenarios,” Foght explains.