Calgary, Alberta – A new bacterial growth called biofilm could be used to clean the waste water from tar sands, according to researchers at the University of Calgary and University of Alberta.

Oil sands development uses vast amounts of water and even though it is recycled multiple times, the recycling concentrates the toxins and metals left over from extracting and upgrading the bitumen. This results in tailings ponds, which pose a significant risk to the environment.

Two years into a research project, biologists at the University of Calgary and engineers at the University of Alberta have published a paper into the first round of their research. Much of the research into tailings remediation has focused on microbes and their ability to settle the tailings sludge and clean the water.

“We’ve isolated biofilms that are indigenous to the oil sands environment and are highly tolerant to the stress associated with toxins and metals found in tailings water,” said Raymond Turner, a professor in the biological sciences department who co-leads the project. “These consortia of biofilms are able to slowly detoxify the water.”

The researchers were able to cultivate biofilms from a sample of sediment taken from a tailings pond. Different species could be recovered from one biofilm. By altering the growth conditions or exposing the biofilms to different stressors, the researchers could manipulate the biofilms to get the ideal metabolic activities and characteristics.

Turner and his team are actively growing biofilms to test in bioreactors, with the ultimate goal of developing tailings water treatment plants for all of the oil sands operations. “The plant would take all tailings water, completely clean it, and return it to the river system,” Turner said. “Just like waste water in Calgary is cleaned and returned to the Bow River.”

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