The first official day of conference sessions at the Paste 2014 conference here in Vancouver. Sean Wells, Director of Research for Suncor presented the opening keynote address. I cannot possibly here recount all he said. All I can do is note a few points that he made that stuck with me. In due course, his PowerPoint presentation will be available through InfoMine. Get it and take deep thought over it, for his points are provocative, timely, and scary. He noted that the problems of oil sands tailings management are all about scale. They oil sands produce so much tailings that the shear volumes and areas needed introduce problems not encountered in conventional tailings management. I have heard it said that the two oil sands mines, Suncor and Syncrude, produce more tailings per day than the combined total of all the other mines worldwide. His point is made.
Sean pointed out that they are aware of all the mechanical methods: thickening, pasting, filter-pressing, cycloning, centrifuging, deep-pit filling, thin-lifting, and many more. They are aware of the chemicals that added to tailings change the tailings properties. He challenged us by saying that the need is not for more new chemicals, or more new widgets to process the tailings. He does not believe the answer to cost-effective oil sands management lies in new chemicals or widgets.
Rather he challenges us all to come up with management techniques and methods that will bring a new perspective and opportunity to meeting Directive 74 and making long-term tailings facilities that are stable & safe. He emphasized that the scale of the tailings facilities is what poses the problems that need to be solved by systems, not widgets or chemicals. He seeks deposition methods that will enable the industry to put tailings on flat plains, in deep holes, in old open pits, into lakes, behind dikes & berms, and wherever there is space & place.
I have previously written that the problem is an emphasis on thin lift drying in a place where there is a short drying season with materials that do not naturally form thin lifts. In my opinion the whole concept of thin lift drying is like the Holy Roman Empire, neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire.
Then there is an almost wilful blind-eye to the fact that there are other free forces: gravity, freezing, shrinkage & cracking, and more that are not incorporated into conventional thinking about oil sands tailings management. The freezing period in Fort McMurray in longer than the drying period—yet we seldom hear of depositional freezing as a method. We seldom hear of gravity-induced consolidation as a management method.
My challenge to the industry is to integrate seasonal forces, gravity, sun & wind, natural tailings shrinkage, and freeze-thaw into a wholistic (dare I say holistic) deposition system.
I will present my paper tomorrow on these ideas. Contact me if you want a copy.