In Alberta, energy drives the economy, and the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology (NAIT) is behind some of the most innovative research in the sector. The Edmonton-based polytechnic stands out because of their focus on collaboration and partnership to develop relevant solutions to the challenges faced by industry.

One of NAIT’s primary research areas is clean innovation for Alberta’s oil sands, an industry which requires large amounts of water for production. Instead of using fresh water, NAIT researchers, in partnership with industry, are exploring new technologies to improve the reuse of the valuable resource.

Many in the oil sands industry know NAIT for the high-quality graduates who come to work with them, but increasingly the polytechnic has become known for its applied research. NAIT’s mandate is to support industry in developing clean innovation products and processes that improve environmental performance.

Oil and water

Andrea Sedgwick leads research at NAIT’s Centre for Oil Sands Sustainability and says water is at the heart of her team’s research. The Ledcor Applied Research Chair in Oil Sands Sustainability says that there are three major environmental issues her centre looks at: water, tailings, and the need to reduce greenhouse gases. And, she adds, they’re all interconnected.

“Water is a key resource that’s used for recovering the oil from the sands,” she says. This results in tailings and wastewater that needs to be recycled. “We need to reduce the raw water usage and increase the amount of water reuse by employing new technologies.” She adds that by doing so, greenhouse gas emissions can be reduced. NAIT’s oil sands research achieves these goals by enhancing recovery processes, identifying new technologies to manage and treat wastewater, and optimizing treatment processes.

The Centre for Oil Sands Sustainability was also recently awarded funding to design and construct a high-temperature, high-pressure testing unit for oil sands water treatment technologies. “Our industry partners have said they haven’t been able to find anything like it in the world,” Sedgwick says. “It’s going to be able to take industrial wastewaters and test different technologies in real-world conditions. This helps de-risk and perfect the technologies before moving to the next level of validation.”

Dr. Heather Kaminsky, Research Lead - Mining, NAIT Centre for Oil Sands Sustainability

Innovative wastewater treatments

Peter Laffin, Director of Business Development for NAIT’s Centre for Sensors and System Integration, leads a research group that also explores innovative ways to measure and monitor wastewater treatment technologies and processes.

He says many industries share environmental concerns around sustainable water use.

“Several of our current research projects are focused on helping different industry clients, large and small, who want to be sure they are good stewards of our natural resources,” Laffin says.

Among his team’s projects is a nanotechnology-based water treatment process that focuses on oxidizing the organic compounds within wastewater produced by industry. Another is a laser-based water quality instrument meant to speed up the process of treating wastewater. “It lets you quickly characterize the size of particles in the tailings from oil sands processes, leading to efficiencies when further treating the resulting waste water.”

Developing this type of innovative technology, he adds, should help the oil sands producers be more efficient in their operations and use fewer chemicals when doing these treatments. “That way they’ll leave less of a footprint on the environment.”

For more information on NAIT’s clean innovation research projects, visit nait.ca/appliedresearch.