Commercialisation of Bioreactor Process Technology

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. the heavy oil sands resources in North America. However, extraction and processing from oil sands, results in the production of large volumes of wastewaters (tailings) that have to be stored in vast settling ponds. There are several environmental concerns with tailings ponds. Firstly, they produce vast amounts of biogenic greenhouse gases. Secondly, they have very slow consolidation (settling) of the fine tailings solids, which may take decades. Thirdly, the storage of tailings poses huge environmental and economic risks from pollution incidents due to the presence of high concentrations of toxic compounds in the wastewaters known as naphthenic acids (NAs). NAs are complex mixtures of carboxylic 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 research has contributed a significant advance to current technologies for treating oil sands process wastewaters. At UoE, we have developed a novel microbial bioreactor process technology that has proved successful with intermediate and large-scale trials. We have shown that our technology rapidly increases sedimentation rates thus increasing the proportion of clarified wastewater that could potentially be recycled back into the process. Our technology can also be applied on a large-scale to rapidly bioremediate and detoxify naphthenic acids (NAs) from at least two different process feeds within days of treatment. However, since each operator uses a different NA extraction method, the resulting wastewaters will have different physicochemical characteristics and will contain different NA compositions/ concentrations. It is therefore, crucial to further test our bioreactor technology (on an industrial-scale) in relation to the different oil sands wastewater streams from all oil sands companies. Our proposed project involves setting up a 2-day workshop with invited delegates from across the sector, including representatives from all the oil sands companies currently in operation in Alberta, the Regulator (Alberta Environment) and also members of the Canadian Oil Sands innovation Alliance (COSIA). The overall aim of the workshop would be to foster international collaboration and allow our technology to gain support from the oil sands industry as a cost-effective solution to a number of the industry's key priorities. The workshop will be used as a focus to demonstrate to the industry the cost-benefits and widespread ease of implementation of our technology. We will commission consultants to conduct an evaluation of the technical and economic feasibility of scaling-up our technology to an industrial scale for deployment across the oil sands companies. It is anticipated that, if successful, the project will enable inclusion and adoption of our technology by COSIA and the sector in conjunction with validation of the technology by the Regulator (Alberta Environment). This will provide a platform for a joint industry project (JIP) in collaboration with the sector to further test the technology and facilitate further commercialisation development. In conclusion, our novel technology will allow operators to recycle wastewater, reduce the amount of freshwater abstraction required for processing; increase sedimentation rates, thus reducing the amount of stored tailings with a concomitant reduction in capital/ storage costs and associated environmental/economic risks.
Description The ability to scale-up the bioremediation of OSPW up to 300 litre scale within a short treatment time i.e. 28 days
Exploitation Route develop a joint industry project with industrial partners
Sectors Energy,Environment

Description Two patent applications have been submitted. Industry interested in setting up a joint industry project
First Year Of Impact 2015
Sector Energy,Environment
Impact Types Societal,Economic

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