2018 Finalist: Outstanding Achievement in Energy and Environmental Innovation sponsored by Syncrude Canada Ltd.
Novel sampling device gives operators near real time water quality information
Sustainable oil sand operations will eventually include the return of treated process-affected waters to the environment, after hazards and risks are evaluated and water quality benchmarks are established. Dr. Aaron Redman is laying the foundation for a new generation of oil sands water quality assessment, using rapid analytical measurements, which will replace existing industry practices.
What problem did you see a need to solve and how did you solve this real-world problem?
There are a lot of different constituents in process-affected water. It’s a complex problem. To make decisions and communicate clearly what the risks are, we need to be able to simplify the message, identify the hazards and the risks of the operation or substance we’re working with.
One of the interesting aspects of the water quality assessment tool we’ve developed is that it utilizes existing technologies in a new way to address this very complex problem. Solid phase microextraction (SPME), gas chromatography and the flame ionization detector have all been in existence for a long time and are standard tools you find in analytical laboratories. Our work uses these tools together and by looking at the area of the chromatogram, which represents the material that comes off this SPME fibre, you can get a sense of all the bioavailable material in the test system. By understanding the bioavailability, you can determine if a sample is more or less potent. You can then compare this bioavailability measurement to toxicity data developed in laboratories or in the field.
We have developed what we call a passive sampler-based toxicity threshold. The passive sampling device is a surrogate for fish or other aquatic organisms that would have exposure to the materials in the process water. We can use these devices for new toxicity thresholds for what is safe and then compare to measurements collected in the field.
What has been the impact?
At the end of the treatment process before process-affected water is released, the company performs toxicity tests. It requires days to weeks to run those bioassays.
With our technology, running the analytical method requires just a few hours which becomes a near real-time measurement of the potency of the process affected water which means you can manage the water appropriately. Not only is this a method to understand the potency or the bioavailability of a complex mixture such as the process-affected water, it is also a method of rapid analysis.
The work has helped us streamline our water quality assessments and understand which process waters or which chemicals are more or less hazardous so that we can streamline our testing programs and our responses accordingly.
Has being in Alberta helped you find success?
When I look back on this project, I see two major accomplishments. One is the technical success of the passive sampling method that allows us to evaluate bioavailability of process water.
The second is the very collaborative and collegial nature of the research community. Leveraging and building on other research to complement our own research allowed us to progress more quickly than we would have on our own.
Who have been your major supporters?
COSIA members and staff have really helped us develop the program. Once the ideas were validated and once we had gone through the proof of concept development stages, we then connected with research groups at the University of Alberta, University of Saskatchewan and Environment and Climate Change Canada who provided data and input to develop our project.
What are the plans for the future?
The next phase of the research will be to share the method with other contract labs, universities and other interested research groups to help them develop the method on their own. Once the method is more widely available, it allows for broader use. With our technology, the oil sands operators can now develop near real-time data to make decisions on the management of process water.
How does it feel to be an ASTech Finalist?
It’s really exciting to have this recognition from ASTech and from my peers in the scientific research community. It’s satisfying to know they have confidence in the science we developed and they have appreciated the collaborations we’ve built. It’s a really satisfying milestone in my career to receive this recognition.