Biogeochemical investigation of centrifuged fine tailings deposits at an oil sands mine in Northern Alberta, Canada
Centrifuged fine tailings (CFT) technology was developed to reduce volumes of fluid fine tailings (FFT) stored in tailings ponds at oil sands mines. Increasing FFT inventories in tailings ponds results from slow settlement of clay minerals suspended in oil sands process-affected water (OSPW). High sodium (Na) concentrations in OSPW increase the electrical double layer (EDL) thickness at clay-mineral surfaces, which hinders aggregation and, therefore, settlement. Production of CFT involves dredging FFT from tailings ponds, amending with polyacrylamide and gypsum, and decanter centrifuging. This process promotes aggregation and flocculation, and decreases gravimetric water content from approximately 70 to 55 % (w/w). The resulting CFT is deposited in thin lifts (< 2 m) into sub-aerial containment areas to facilitate further dewatering via freeze-thaw cycling. This research was focused on characterizing the biogeochemical conditions and processes within the CFT deposits. These deposits remain tension-saturated and, similar to tailings ponds, anaerobic redox processes including iron (Fe) reduction, sulfate (SO4) reduction, and methanogenesis likely dominate. The geochemistry, mineralogy, and microbiology of core samples from two field-scale test deposits and two full-scale production deposits were examined. Results were compared with previously published data from FFT deposits to assess impacts of chemical amendments on biogeochemical processes within CFT deposits. Pore-water chemistry within the CFT deposits is affected by evaporative concentration of dissolved ions, which leads to high concentrations of salts (Na, 3000 mg L-1; Cl, 1500 mg L-1; SO4, 5000 mg L-1) and naphthenic acids (NAs 150 mg L-1) near the surface (< 0.3 m) of these deposits. Increases in concentrations of conservative ions (i.e., Cl) indicated that 30 to 40 % of pore water was lost to evaporation at a depth of 0.1 m below surface. Results also suggest that microbially-mediated Fe reduction, SO4 reduction, and methanogenesis are dominant redox processes within the CFT deposits. Microbes related to genera known to use these terminal electron acceptors were identified by high-throughput DNA sequencing data. Increases in dissolved Fe and H2S with depth were also indicative of Fe and SO4 reduction, respectively. These results provide the first insight into biogeochemical conditions and processes within oil sands CFT deposits.
DegreeMaster of Science (M.Sc.)
SupervisorLindsay, Matthew B.; McBeth, Joyce J.
CommitteeChang, Won Jae; Fonstad, Terry A.; Merriam, Jim B.
Copyright DateSeptember 2015