Siddique, Dr. Tariq & Ullah, Dr. Aman

2019 Finalist: Outstanding Achievement in Energy and Environmental Innovation sponsored by Syncrude Canada Ltd.

Cleaning Contaminants with Poultry Feather Biopolymers

Using poultry feathers, Dr. Tariq Siddique and Dr. Aman Ullah developed keratin biopolymers that have shown to be an innovative and promising technology for the simultaneous removal of multiple contaminants from oil sands process-affected water. By using an abundant waste material, the converted keratin biopolymers have tremendous potential as sorbents for large-scale application. 

What problem or opportunity did you identify and seek to address?

Aman: There are two issues. The first is treating the oil sands process affected water to remove metals and naphthenic acids because that is the major environmental problem. When naphthenic acids and metals are present, the water is toxic and it is difficult to recycle it efficiently. Secondly, the oil sands industry wants to recover as much water as possible and consolidate those tailings for complete remediation.

In 2012, I received funding to tackle the issue of arsenic in drinking water in developing countries. We came up with the solution of using biopolymer keratin from poultry feathers to remove some of the arsenic from the affected water. In the meantime, I had discussions with Tariq about expanding the project into multi-metal removal. We modified it and fine-tuned it to remove multi-metals and organics, like naphthenic acids. We then moved to consolidation, which Tariq’s lab focuses on.

This solves two challenges. Poultry feathers are a by-product of the poultry industry; they have minimal use and are typically discarded into landfill. The beauty of this keratin biopolymer is, unlike synthetic polymers that have two or three functional groups and remove selected contaminants, on the contrary this is a heterobiopolymer with several functional groups which serve as a complex system to remove multiple contaminants simultaneously.

This is an opportunity for both industrial sectors to take advantage because it’s a cheap bio resource and it is a simple process to synthesize.

What has been the impact?

Tariq: The biopolymers Aman’s lab developed have a great affinity for various metals and not only those found in the oil sands. We have tested nine or 10 metals, which are all environmentally important.  We see the versatility of these biopolymers because the same biopolymers used to remove metals can be used to remove organics, like naphthenic acid, with promising results.

Biopolymers can also flocculate the clays, meaning this novel solution will not only consolidate and combine the clays in the tailings through densification, but will also improve the water quality by removing more contaminants compared to the other sorbents currently in use.

How has being in Alberta helped you find success?

Aman: It’s a great opportunity to be in Alberta because some of the issues are specific to Alberta. Also, we have poultry processing plants in Alberta which can supply feathers. It’s a great advantage in terms of application towards oil sands sector and also in terms of biopolymer production because of the abundant availability from the poultry industry. 

Who have been your major supporters?

Tariq: Our current project on oil sands process affected water (OSPW) treatment is funded by Future Energy Systems at the University of Alberta. Within our team we have an adsorption group and people are also working on different metal sorptions in civil and environmental engineering. This gives us the opportunity to compare our results and work together. We also have close contacts with industry. We are also in contact with COSIA and discussing our results with Alberta Environment.

What are the plans for the future?

Aman: We have developed intellectual property protection and we have submitted a patent, which is pending. We have also had some initial discussion with TEC Edmonton to move forward to scale up the project. Tariq and I also presented to COSIA and they were very interested in consolidation; they provided us some tailings samples for trials. We conducted 10-litre scale trials and now we are looking for opportunities and planning to move forward with bigger trials. Eventually we will either spin off or transfer this technology into a company.

How does it feel to be an ASTech Finalist?

Aman: It’s wonderful! It’s such a prestigious award and especially because it recognizes the sciences in Alberta.

Tariq: It’s great to be among these top finalists for a very prestigious award.