Cheaper method cleans oil sands production wastewater quickly
24 November 2015
Canadian researchers have developed a process to remove contaminants from oil sands wastewater using only sunlight and nanoparticles.
The University of Waterloo's Professor Frank Gu led the team that discovered how photocatalysis — a chemical reaction that involves the absorption of light by nanoparticles — can completely eliminate naphthenic acids in oil sands wastewater - and within hours. Naphthenic acids pose a threat to ecology and human health. Water in tailing ponds left to biodegrade naturally in the environment still contains these contaminants decades later.
“With about a billion tonnes of water stored in ponds in Alberta, removing naphthenic acids is one of the largest environmental challenges in Canada,” says Tim Leshuk, a PhD candidate in chemical engineering at Waterloo and lead author of a paper describing the work in the journal, Chemosphere. “Conventional treatments people have tried either haven’t worked, or if they have worked, they’ve been far too impractical or expensive to solve the size of the problem. Waterloo’s technology is the first step of what looks like a very practical and green treatment method.”
Unlike treating polluted water with chlorine or membrane filtering, the Waterloo technology is energy-efficient and relatively inexpensive. Nanoparticles become extremely reactive when exposed to sunlight and break down the persistent pollutants in their individual atoms, completely removing them from the water. This treatment depends only on sunlight for energy, and the nanoparticles can be recovered and reused indefinitely.
Next steps for the Waterloo research include ensuring that the treated water meets all of the objectives Canadian environmental legislation and regulations required to ensure it can be safely discharged from sources larger than the samples, such as tailing ponds.