New research chair investigating oilsands tailings challenges

Collaborative partnership is researching new tailings processes and educating next generation of engineers.


(Edmonton) One of Canada’s top researchers tackling challenges presented by mining waste has been appointed as Industrial Research Chair by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada.

University of Alberta engineering professor Ward Wilson, with the support of the federal and provincial governments and industry partners, is leading research projects aimed at solving challenges presented by mine tailings, such as oilsands tailings.

Wilson has been appointed to a five-year term as the NSERC/COSIA Senior Industrial Research Chair in Oil Sands Tailings Geotechnique. The chair is supported by Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance’s Tailings Environmental Priority Area and Alberta Innovates – Energy and Environment Solutions. This research chair program will provide Alberta’s oilsands industry, its regulators and consultants with novel technologies to measure the effectiveness of current tailings remediation efforts, new and innovative processes for reducing the amount of post-production tailings, and simulation models to assist industry with tailings planning and management.

In announcing the appointment, dean of engineering David Lynch observed that the Faculty of Engineering has been involved in tailings research for decades.

With 25 years of industry experience and a strong international reputation as a researcher and academic, Wilson is “one of the few people worldwide who is qualified” to hold the chair, said Pamela Moss, acting vice-president of NSERC's research directorate.

Importantly, she noted, Wilson’s young researchers will play an important role in solving challenges presented by tailings.

The combined footprint for Alberta’s oilsands tailings is currently more than 130 square kilometres—and it is estimated that the oilsands industry will increase production to 3.7 million barrels per day within the next decade. However, industry’s ability to manage the waste from these processes will be critical in ensuring the continuity of its operations.

Wilson and his team will investigate and develop technologies to measure the effectiveness of current tailings remediation efforts as well as new and innovative processes for reducing the amount of post-production tailings.

Lynch added that industry involvement is vital, because oilsands vary from one site to another.

“What works in one oilsands deposit will not necessarily work in another oilsands deposit,” he said, noting that the COSIA members have all shared their intellectual property and research to work together on tailings, which helps Wilson and his team, and industry, “follow the most productive path possible.”

Wilson, who acknowledged the work of his predecessors, said his research program is running at full steam.

“We have a long way to go, but we’re up and running,” he said.

Lynch added that collaborative partnerships such as this benefit everyone involved by bringing real-life industry challenges to university classrooms and labs, connecting education, research and the application of new knowledge beyond the university’s borders.

“When industry and universities work together, students gain a deeper understanding of the concepts they’re learning because they can see the connection between their studies and the practical applications of engineering principles,” Lynch said. “At the same time, industry and the engineering profession benefit as we educate a highly qualified new generation of engineers.”

The research program is being funded for five years with a possibility of renewal. Wilson’s program is supported by a total of $4.9 million, including a $1.9-million award from NSERC, $1.9 million from COSIA Tailings EPA (along with an additional $390,000 of in-kind support) and $500,000 through Alberta Innovates – Energy and Environment Solutions.