Dr. Mohamed Gamal El-Din

2016 Oil Sands,  Finalist

Research Reveals New Ways of Water Treatment

The oil sands are a significant driver of Canada’s economy. As such, researchers are  continuously striving to improve the industry, particularly in the area of environmental sustainability. 

Over the last 20 years, one of the main culprits impacting the environmental sustainability is oil sands process-affected water (OSPW). OSPW is the water produced from the extraction process, and is stored in tailings ponds for its recycle in bitumen extraction, process cooling, and material hydro-transport. As part of the industry’s reclamation plan, OSPW in tailings ponds will eventually be developed into terrestrial or aquatic habitat upon mine closure. The industry is also investigating whether selected water streams that make up OSPW can be candidates for return to the environment after treatment. 

Although tailing ponds are a solution to OSPW, they are a temporary fix. These ponds have limited capacity and new land is constantly being consumed to develop new ponds. Tailing ponds currently occupy over 170 square kilometres in Canada and have become an extreme environmental risk. 

To solve this urgent issue, researchers like Dr. Mohamed Gamal El-Din are developing ways to treat and reclaim OSPW so it can be safely returned to the environment. Previous treatment methods relied on intrinsic or managed microbiological degradation but these processes were determined to be too slow to completely detoxify OSPW.

Since becoming the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) Industrial Research Chair in Oil Sands Tailings Water Treatment at the University of Alberta in 2011, Gamal El-Din has led the development of new methods of OSPW treatment. 

One of these methods is a multi-barrier treatment process, which accelerates the decontamination and detoxification of OSPW. Gamal El-Din specifically intends to integrate physico-chemical, and biological processes for decontamination purposes. By providing several layers of treatment to OSPW, a quicker and more thorough cleansing is achieved which allows the water to either be returned to the environment or reused in oil sands operations.

Another method of treatment involves the use of nano-silver and multi-walled carbon nanotube thin-film membranes, which have increased permeability and anti-biofouling properties to remove oil, suspended solids, dissolved solids, and other contaminants from OSPW. This technique allows the design of fit-to purpose membranes to be moulded specifically to produce water of several different quality levels.

Gamal El-Din was the first researcher to investigate the fundamentals and performance of OSPW treatment processes. While his work is currently available for implementation, the processes must be vetted by government organizations. 

“In order for these treatment processes to be implemented, they have to be approved by Alberta Environment and Parks,” explains Gamal El-Din. “There is a set of standards that must be met, which is the health of the ecosystem, using the best available technologies for both the economic and technological sides of the process.”

The Future of OSPW Treatment

Gamal El-Din is in the process to renew the NSERC Industrial Research Chair for a second term. The majority of his work will be focused on the application of novel engineering passive approaches and hybrid processes (combination of active and passive methods) for the safe release of OSPW into the environment. His goal is also to obtain a better understanding of the energy requirements and other factors for each option. “The end product will be a ‘toolbox’ of different solutions that will fit each purpose and need of OSPW treatment,” he explains.

Gamal El-Din is also influencing OSPW treatment through his work as a professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Alberta. Here he applies and expands his research to train highly qualified personnel and to date, he has supervised more than 50 students on oil sands process-affected water treatment.