Meet our expert

Developing solutions for a constantly evolving challenge

The Canadian oil sands industry is home to some of the brightest minds in the business – working across vast sites in remote locations to tackle ever-changing demands for tailings treatment. Tom Fenderson, an expert in oil sands tailings, works in Kemira’s oil sands application lab in Edmonton. Together with a team of application experts, he’s developing solutions that can effectively treat ever increasing volumes of tailings and ensure operators meet the strict standards set by environmental regulations.

Developing solutions for a constantly evolving challenge

“For many years the industry had been focused on fast liquid-solid separation with not much emphasis placed on the quality of the water recovered,“ explains Tom. “Now, with the need to increase the volume of tailings treated, that’s changing.” This dual focus – on the speed of separation and the quality of the wastewater it generates – has necessitated new approaches to tailings treatment and with them come new chemical solutions to replace the old ones that are struggling to keep up with these increased quality and volume demands.

Developing a solution for the unique demands of each tailings treatment operation requires close cooperation with the customer.

It’s coagulants’ time to shine

“Our research was always based around developing new flocculants, as these are the key to faster liquid solid separation. Now, with water quality being seen as equally important, coagulants have also come under the spotlight for our oil sands customers. Currently, of the commercial processes used to treat oil sands tailings, 90% use a flocculant and 40% a coagulant, but with the focus on water quality increasing, the number of applications incorporating coagulants is expected to increase in the coming years,” says Tom.

“The benefit to our customers is that we can combine our product offering of inorganic coagulants and polymer flocculants with our expertise in the oil sands and water treatment industries,” explains Tom. Kemira is the only company with the capability to manufacture the flocculants and coagulants locally in North America at the enormous volumes the industry needs.

Nothing is off the shelf

Despite Kemira’s vast expertise and experience, developing a solution for the unique demands of each tailings treatment operation requires close cooperation with the customer. “Instead of trying to force our technology on customers, our focus is always on finding solutions to their challenges, and to do this we have to gain an intimate understanding of what’s going on with their process,” explains Tom.

Over the years Kemira has developed five generations of oil sands flocculants, each one for a specific application. “A common saying in the industry is “There is no silver bullet”. Each individual situation must be treated as unique. To further complicate matters, tailings themselves can vary, both over time and from one side of the tailings pond to the other, so we are constantly monitoring how our solutions are performing and tweaking them,” Tom continues.

The time needed to develop a new tailings application is typically five to ten years. We developed the  new flocculant in just two years.

Pump up the volume

The biggest challenge facing operators is increasing the volume of tailings treated each year. One promising new approach is enhancing the existing polymer flocculant-based process with the addition of a coagulant to improve the quality of the water expressed from the treated fluid tailings.

“Once we understood the limitations of the existing approach and what was needed in order to make the new approach a success, we started to tailor our flocculants and coagulants,” says Tom. “The time needed to develop a new tailings application is largely dictated by the customer, but five to ten years is typical – in this particular case, the application had an accelerated timeline, which meant that we developed, manufactured, and deployed the new flocculant in just two years.”

The value of developing improved technologies is extremely high if we’re to ensure the total volume of material in these ponds decreases.

New treatment approaches require research – and collaboration

Kemira is also participating in more joint development projects and research programs, including with COSIA (the Canadian Oil Sands Innovation Alliance). To highlight the importance being placed on developing new technologies, 189 technologies have been evaluated by COSIA for oil sands tailings, with technology development costs estimated at CAD 755 million. “The applications are constantly changing and real-world problems – often a result of the sheer scale of the industry and volumes involved – mean that we’re often having to go back to the lab to make tweaks. Here the work of our tech service team, who have their noses to the ground and know our customers’ processes and challenges inside out, is invaluable in helping us proactively develop and adjust our solutions,” Tom explains.

At the end of 2019, approximately 1.4 billion m3 of tailings were stored in oil sands tailings ponds. More tailings will continue to be generated throughout this century, so the value of developing improved technologies is extremely high if we’re to ensure the total volume of material in these ponds decreases. “At Kemira, we’re in a great position to continue developing solutions that will help our customers meet their sustainability goals and turn tailings ponds into flourishing biodiverse eco-systems for future generations,” concludes Tom.

Tom Fenderson
Senior Specialist, Applications, Industry & Water
At Kemira since
Edmonton, Alberta, Canada
Topics to watch
The technology that everyone wants to succeed – the end pit lake approach
Words to live by
“Any job, big or small, do it right or not at all.”
What motivates me
Succeeding where people say we can’t
Outdoor activities like kayaking and hiking with my wife and our dog

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