Close partnership is key to optimizing oil sands tailings treatment

Ryan Venter, Manager, Technical Sales and Service, relocated to Fort McMurray, Alberta for his current role with Kemira in March 2020. Working closely with his team, Ryan supports our Canadian oil sands customers to meet their varied needs and tackle the intricate challenges of processing tailings. Here, he reflects on the challenges facing the industry and how Kemira’s capabilities are supporting its success.

Ryan sees two major challenges for oil sands in Canada at present: operators must develop ways to optimize their performance by assessing the efficacy of tailings treatments in real time, while also adhering to evolving government regulations. “Fortunately there’s a lot of crossover between these goals, meaning solving one can help to achieve the other,” he expands, going on to emphasize that treating tailings is no walk in the park. “The sites we work with can have as much as 30,000 tonnes of tailings flowing through their systems hourly, and conditions can change from minute to minute so it can be hard to keep up with just lab-based monitoring.”

That’s why real-time monitoring is such a big deal as the industry looks for ways to treat tailings as efficiently as possible before they enter tailings ponds. “We’re dealing with a byproduct material that can contain trace amounts of bitumen and 20–60% solids, which can cause damage to the monitoring systems,” Ryan says. “Without real-time data all we have is a reference point, which is useful for research and historic information but no good for on-the-fly optimization.”

Digital monitoring and control tools play a vital role in assisting oil sands operators to fine-tune their processes. “Kemira supports our customers through know-how and chemistry, and more recently that know-how has expanded to include digital services,” Ryan explains. “Far beyond merely monitoring the dosage points and chemical volumes, we’re now developing ways to observe operations holistically and use artificial intelligence to help predict what operators need to do, both chemically and operationally, to maintain optimal conditions.”

The combination of competencies in our team offers an advanced level of technical expertise to help our customers resolve their challenges.

Always something to learn and new challenges to tackle

He may have only moved to Fort McMurray from his native South Africa in 2020, but with a chemical engineering technology diploma and 25 years’ experience across a range of industry roles, Ryan is far from a beginner. “I’ve certainly gained experience from a variety of roles in mining and oil and gas, including in operations, technical support, sales, and services, and seen the industry from multiple perspectives,” he explains.

His broad experience puts him in an excellent position to support Kemira’s oil sands customers with the complexities of tailings treatment. “The combination of competencies in our talented team here in Fort McMurray allows us to offer an advanced level of technical expertise to help our customers resolve their challenges,” he says. “No two days are the same, and that’s what keeps things exciting – there are always new and interesting challenges to address, and it’s fascinating to be exposed to so many different technologies on a daily basis – both established and novel – and to get involved in formulating new ones ourselves.”

Safety is at the top of the agenda in every daily team meeting, because we need to have that mindset ingrained in everything we do.

Internal and external collaboration is essential

Ryan’s daily tasks are geared around coordinating his team and cooperating with several other departments to support customers. “I couldn’t do my work alone,” he emphasizes. “It’s a truly collaborative effort and not only do I work closely with my team and other experts here at Kemira, but also with our customers to develop solutions .” Ryan stresses that safety is always the primary concern. “Safety is at the top of the agenda in every daily team meeting – and it’s not just about working safely, it’s about living safely, because we need to have that mindset ingrained in everything we do . Knowing how severe the consequences of unsafe behaviors and practices can be in this industry, there’s simply no room for complacency.”

While Ryan naturally does a lot of talking as part of his role, listening is just as important: “Listening and understanding are crucial skills in my role because we can then make sure our work is aligned with customers’ goals and that we can provide them with the support they need. To give you an idea of the scale of some of these operations, we can be delivering up to hundreds of tonnes of polymer on some days!”

Building relationships with other experts and organizations can lead to collaborations that drive safety, efficiency, and sustainability in industry.

Good old-fashioned networking is still an important skill

But it’s not all about chemicals, monitoring, and tailings. Ryan, who will attend the IOSTC 2022 in December alongside other Kemira representatives, believes that these types of events are an ideal opportunity for networking: “Whenever I’m at a conference, my main focus is always on building relationships with other experts and organizations, because these connections can lead to collaborations and ecosystems that drive safety, efficiency, and sustainability in the oil sands industry.”

At the IOSTC 2022 Kemira will also present a technical paper titled “Chemically-enhanced modifications to improve dewatering performance for oil sands tailings”.

Ryan Venter, Kemira
Ryan Venter
Job title
Manager, Technical Sales and Service
At Kemira since
February 2017
Topics to watch
Digital optimization of tailings processes through real-time monitoring; AI, machine learning, and computational fluid dynamics; clean water recovery from tailings
Words to live by
Listen to understand before responding
What motivates me
Understanding “Why” – why things work the way they do and why people react in certain ways