A report on this morning’s proceedings at the First International OIl Sands Tailings Conference: good, detailed presentations on the science that controls the engineering and politics of oil sands tailings disposal. Let me try to sketch in layman’s terms the fundamental issues.
The soil that contain the oil is excavated and treated to recover the oil. Let behind are sands, silts, clays, and small amounts of oil. The clays cause the resulting mixture to behave like a fluid mud. The reason the mix behaves like a mud is that the clay particles are so small that electrostatic forces on the edges of the clay particles prevent the clay particles getting close together to set up to form a solid that people can walk on. Much fundamental scientific investigation is going into understanding the chemistry and physics of these clay particles that prefer to remain alone and repulse fellow clay particles. The holy grail is a way to get the clay particles to get together to form a solid that a little old lady in slippers could shuffle across.