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Genomics solutions to clean up oil sands process water

BC scientists searching for genomics solutions to clean up oil sand process water

MEDIA RELEASE | January 23, 2017
Genome British Columbia

Vancouver, BC  - Bitumen, like its cousin conventional crude oil, is made up of organic compounds containing carbon and hydrogen. The main difference between the two is the ratio of carbon to hydrogen. Bitumen contains more carbon, in addition to impurities, such as nitrogen, sulphur and heavy metals. In order to produce synthetic crude from bitumen, these impurities must be removed and the ratio of carbon to hydrogen corrected.

The recovery of bitumen consumes large volumes of water that results in a considerable amount of oil sands process water (OSPW)—a complex mixture of suspended and dissolved solids, salts, and organic pollutants, such as naphthenic acids (NAs). Although NAs are a natural component of petroleum, they are quite soluble in water, therefore exposing aquatic life to their toxic effects.

Remediation efforts are expensive due to the complexity of OSPW’s composition and the significant volume of water that has been used for bitumen recovery.  Treatment of NAs is particularly difficult due to their dilute and toxic nature. Finding cost-effective and efficient solutions for NAs is critical for mine operators to be able to return water back to the environment and to complete regulated reclamation efforts at mine closure. Research has shown that NAs can be removed through microbial degradation, making a passive biological approach for treating these organic pollutants a high potential solution for industry.

To this end, The BioFoundry, a research group led by Dr. Vikramaditya G. Yadav at UBC, and Metabolik Technologies Inc., a start-up company funded by Evok Innovations, have partnered to develop a potential technology platform that could detoxify OSPW in an energy efficient and economical manner for Industry.

“We’ve gained an excellent understanding of how the local microbial population responds to pollution in the Athabasca tailings ponds in northern Alberta.” says Dr. Yadav, “We have conceived a benign method for remediation using state-of-the-art tools and methodologies to harness the right microbial chemistries that can easily scale, consume minimal amounts of energy and can be adapted to other sites.”

Using synthetic biology tools and omics platforms, the research team will look to develop a cold adapted bacteria (strain of E.coli) that can tolerate northern climates, while rapidly degrading NAs. A genetic circuit in the engineered strain will aim to speed biodegradation activity, while providing a built-in ‘kill switch’ to prevent dispersion of the bacterial population in the environment since the bacteria will be dependent on NAs for survival. This objective will achieve efficient bio-containment and allow safe release of treated OSPW into rivers without harmful environmental consequences.

Once developed, the engineered strains will be tested for optimization and enhancement in pilot-scale engineered wetlands operated by the industry partner. The goal is to have a new bioremediation processes in place as early as 2018. If successful, the technology could address a multi-billion dollar problem for oil sand companies, but could also be leveraged for expedited rehabilitation of contaminated wastewater in many resource based industries in British Columbia, such as mine tailings and shale and natural gas deposits.

“There is enormous potential for genomics research to uncover green and cost-effective remediation solutions for the energy sector,” says Dr. Catalina Lopez Correa, Chief Scientific Officer and Vice President, Sector Development at Genome BC.

The research project, Synthetic Biology for Detoxification of Oil Sands Process-Affected Water is valued at $207,000 and was funded in partnership with Metabolik Technologies Inc. through Genome BC’s User Partnership Program (UPP). For more information on Genome BC’s funding programs, visit genomebc.ca

Genomics solutions to clean up oil sands process water

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