Process Scale-up for Rapid Naphthenic Acid Removal from Oil sands Process Waters (OSPW).

Lead Research Organisation: University of Essex
Department Name: Biological Sciences


With worldwide production of light crude oil reserves expected to last ~50 yrs, there is a need to exploit alternative fuel resources e.g. oil sands. The vast oil-sand resources in N & S America are already being exploited, resulting in large-scale environmental pollution. During bitumen extraction from oil sands, large volumes of wastewaters (tailings) are produced that are stored in vast settling ponds. Currently ~840 million m3 of tailings have accumulated in Canada alone. There are several problems with tailings ponds: vast amounts of biogenic greenhouse gases are emitted (e.g. 43,000 m3 / day CH4 from one pond), they have very slow consolidation (settling) of the fine tailings solids, which may take decades. Tailings storage poses huge environmental risks due to the presence of high concentrations of toxic compounds known as naphthenic acids (NAs). NAs are complex mixtures of aliphatic & aromatic acids that are highly toxic to many organisms including humans. NAs also block/ corrode pipes/ processing equipment causing further pollution and billion-dollar losses to the industry. Thus, removing NA contamination is important to the global economy, environment and human health. Microbial treatment of NAs has clear cost-environmental advantages. However, the transformation of NAs is complex and influenced by a combination of microbial interactions, biogeochemical factors and the physical-chemical properties of the NAs.
Our previous work showed the more recalcitrant NAs have high molecular weights, and are highly branched. This is of environmental concern as these more highly branched NAs may accumulate in the environment. Recently, we developed a bioreactor that achieved 87% NA removal within days. Our bioreactor treatment also increased tailings sedimentation rates. Although our prototype gravel bed bioreactor is a significant advance for the rapid removal of NAs on a lab-scale, we lack information as to whether it can operate as efficiently (for both NA removal & detoxification) under field-scale processing conditions and with several different waste feeds. Since each operator uses a different NA extraction method, the resulting wastewaters have different physical-chemical characteristics and contain different NA compositions/concentrations. It is thus crucial to test the bioreactor technology in a scale-up process and measure the efficacy of NA removal, detoxification and increased sedimentation, in relation to different wastewaters. Once validated under field-scale trials, the technology will allow operators to recycle wastewater, increase sedimentation rates and reduce the amount of stored tailings, thus reducing capital/ storage costs and environmental risk. Our proposed project involves an international collaboration that integrates the process-scale-up facilities and expertise at the Oil Sands Tailings Research Facility (OSTRF), University of Alberta (UoA), expertise and facilities in process-scale up modeling and analytical chemistry, University of Calgary (UoC), access to field sites and different process feeds (DuPont, Syncrude, Suncor (via UoC), Shell Canada pus other operators (via Alberta Environmental (AE) and expertise for implementing the technology to end users via the Albertan Government Regulator, AE. Overall aim: to develop our optimized bioreactor technology and process into a cost-effective system, that can remove NAs (both amount & toxicity) from different wastewaters at the field-scale. Specific Aims: 1) To quantify bioreactor effectiveness for NA removal and NA detoxification (including metabolite toxicity) from different wastewaters (i.e. from different operators) at lab-, intermediate and field-scale; 2) To investigate the effectiveness of the bioreactor technology for increasing sedimentation rates at each scale; 3) Characterize changes in microbial community structure during treatment (at each scale) to ensure microbial community integrity is maintained throughout.

Planned Impact

Both UK and international oil companies benefit from this technology e.g. BP which operate in Alberta and currently produce over 200,000 barrels day-1, means that the UK has an economic interest in the region. Other industry also benefits e.g. construction companies (for bioreactor construction) and wastewater treatment works for treating hydrocarbon-contaminated wastewaters. Environmental consultants, UK/international policy makers, government bodies will also benefit e.g. EA, EPA, DEFRA, CEFAS & Water Authorities. Local communities, organizations & charities involved in environment & wildlife protection will also benefit where NA contamination is a problem. Economic benefits to UK/ international oil companies: Large-scale, rapid reduction of NA amount & toxicity in vast quantities of wastewaters reduces expensive storage costs incurred (e.g. capital), reduces environmental risk and potential litigation/ fines from pollution events. Environmental/human health benefits: Long-term storage of vast quantities of toxic NA-contaminated waste poses significant environmental/ public health risk. Rapid reduction in NA amount & toxicity reduces such risks benefitting local environment, communities & wildlife. More water can be recycled back providing further cost-environmental benefits by reducing freshwater extraction from rivers during oil processing benefitting benefits other users e.g. Government Agencies, water authorities, wastewater treatment works. Also increased sedimentation obviates the need for chemical flocculents that are themselves often toxic. The technology can also be applied to clean up other UK contaminated sites (benefiting UK construction companies & local economies). Data from the project will better inform policy and regulatory decisions at the Government level. The project will also raise public awareness on the impact of NAs in the environment. DuPont, are world leaders in biotechnology & will lead the implementation of these benefits with other oil sand operators driven by the Albertan Government Regulator (Alberta Environmental) within 5 years. By validating the effectiveness of the bioreactor technology in a scale-up process with different process feeds is a key milestone for reducing commercial and technical risk to DuPont and other oil sand operators as end users e.g. Syncrude, Suncor, Shell Canada, BP etc. The oil sand operators will benefit from the sophisticated 'state of the art' molecular facilities at UoE and the skills, knowledge and expertise of the academic partners. UoE will benefit from the 'in kind support' and expertise of UoA, UoC to assist in scale-up process and modelling. UoE also benefits from in kind support via access to sites, sampling equipment and provision of different wastewater streams courtesy of of the oil sand operators DuPont, Syncrude, Alberta Environmental and Suncor (via UoC). The project also has scope to characterize & validate products (e.g. novel metabolites) giving additional commercial impact. UoE contributes to KT in oil microbiology. As CW is the founder and co-organiser of ISMOS symposia, (which attracted >200 oil companies, regulators & academics, Calgary, 2011), the UoE is perfectly placed for KT to end-users worldwide. CW is also co-editor for Applied Microbiology & Molecular Biology in Oil Field Systems, contributor to Handbook of Hydrocarbon & Lipid Microbiology and Editor of the Journal of International Biodeterioration & Biodegradation (IBB), ISMOS-3 special edition. We will engage with all oil sand operators & other end users via Alberta Environmental and their role in implementing policy to the industry. A workshop integrated into ISMOS-4 (co-organized by CW) will facilitate KT to end-users. Non-proprietary/ non-patentable data will be published in international journals & UoE will give talks at industry-led conferences e.g. ISMOS-4. Project outputs will be available on public access websites with links to UoE, NERC & user-group/project partner websites.
Description Significant new knowledge was generated and improved research methods developed.
Large-scale bioreactors were set up that removed naphthenic acids and increased sedimentation rates within weeks.
Exploitation Route Project outcomes can be used by the oil industry.
Sectors Energy,Environment

Description We have successfully established a large-scale bioreactor (300 Litres) that can increase sedimentation rates and decrease toxicity of naphthenic acid contaminants in oil sands process waters. We have also successfully characterized the microbial community in our optimised inoculum and during the bioreactor treatment using next generation sequence technologies.
First Year Of Impact 2014
Sector Energy,Environment
Impact Types Societal,Economic

Description NERC
Amount £800,000 (GBP)
Funding ID NE/P011624/1 
Organisation Natural Environment Research Council 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 06/2017 
End 05/2020
Description Collaboration with University of Alberta 
Organisation University of Alberta
Department Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering
Country Canada 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution We have successfully set up a large scale bioreactor for the effective treatment of OSPW. We have contributed to the staff/student training of the project collaborators in terms of molecular biological techniques.
Collaborator Contribution They have provided additional training on analytical techniques, access to GC-MS facilities and OSTRF facilities and have provided OSPW samples.
Impact A manuscript and patent application is currently in preparation
Start Year 2013
Description collaboration with University of Calgary 
Organisation University of Calgary
Department Department of Biological Sciences
Country Canada 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution Our team has provided training for students/ staff of our project partners on molecular biological techniques.
Collaborator Contribution Our partners provided access to their lab facilities and modelling expertise.
Impact A patent application and publication are currently in preparation
Start Year 2013
Description Big Bang 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact Talk and workshop on our bioreactor project for the large scale removal of naphthenic acids in wastewaters
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015