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Micro Clean Up Crews

Oil sands producers in western Canada use large quantities of water to coax bitumen out of dirt. Now contaminated, this water ends up in tailing ponds, resting on top of layers of soil, clay and other sediment. Dealing with tailing ponds is one of the acknowledged challenges of the industry.

Raymond Turner, a University of Calgary biochemistry professor, and Howard Ceri, a University of Calgary biology professor, are exploring ways of cleaning this water. They believe bacterial degradation—a method often used in municipal water treatment plants—could be adapted for use in tailing ponds.

Dr. Turner and Dr. Ceri looked for ways to create a biofilm similar to those used in water treatment plants. The major challenge was that free-swimming organisms—which are typically used to process sewage—grow slower and are killed off by the harsh tailings pond water. So they attempted something new: cultivating an entire community of bacteria together, growing the complete biofilm all at once.

“We were able to grow bacteria others couldn’t get—up to 800 different bacteria,” says Dr. Turner. “Trying to grow these individually, we got only seven or eight.”

The ultimate goal is to create custom biofilms for tailing ponds—because no two are alike—and remediate the water to a point where it could be either re-used in production or safely released into the natural environment.