June/July 2008

Research project to capture valuable minerals from oil sands tailings and reduce emissions intensity

Titanium Corporation Inc. receives a two-year funding grant

By M. Eisner

Titanium Corporation Inc., a Canadian company developing a commercial process to maximize the value existing in waste material deposited in Alberta’s oil sands tailings, has received a two-year funding grant of $3.5 million from Alberta’s Energy Innovation Fund. The money will enable Titanium Corporation to continue its research and development into extracting heavy minerals and lost bitumen from oil sands tailings streams.

“About three per cent of the bitumen is lost in the tailings stream and currently it’s going into the tailings ponds,” said Scott Nelson, president and CEO of Titanium Corporation.

“The grant we received, which we’re matching, is really part of a $7 million program directed mainly at recovering a portion of that lost bitumen. That’s a really good thing because there are environmental consequences of the bitumen going into the tailings. So in a nutshell, our project is aimed at recovering two things: the valuable heavy minerals and a portion of that lost bitumen.”

Although still in the research stage, the implications of the project are far-reaching for Nelson’s company, the mining industry as well as for the environment. Titanium and zircon are two harmless, inert heavy minerals that are used in a variety of industries. Most of the world’s titanium is used to create the pigment in paint, but it is also used in metals in aviation, golf clubs and can even be found in toothpaste. Zircon, which is another type of sand, is a very hard substance. Sixty per cent of the world’s zircon is used to make ceramic tiles and porcelain fixtures, but can also be found used in nuclear plants, TV and computer screens, and dental appliances. 

For Nelson, the project is about creating new sources of valuable resources from already mined sites and gaining environmentally as well as economically. “This means there is potential for a new source of heavy minerals up in northern Canada that you don’t have to mine,” he said. “Development of new technology will reprocess an otherwise discounted waste product, adding value to the bitumen resource and providing a number of environmental benefits such as reduced carbon dioxide emissions and smaller disposal areas.”

A long-term project, Nelson said the goal is for the piloting projects, along with the research and testing, to provide positive results so that eventually, larger facilities can be built. “We are at an R&D stage and we have been doing this for three or four years. Step one was building a pilot research facility in Regina to develop technology. Step two was putting a pilot facility right on the site to hook onto the tailings line to start to process tailings and further develop technology, and now step three is to do more research into recovering the bitumen. Once you’ve done your research and enough testing at lab scale and identified something you can pilot onsite, you hope you’re then in a position to say ‘okay we have this all figured out.’ Then, you can move ahead to build a larger facility.”

Nelson said government interest and funding into research and development is integral to the industry discovering new technologies to recover resources.

“I am very pleased that the government of Alberta has agreed to provide such significant support for this project. Development of new technology that will reprocess an otherwise discounted waste product will add value to the bitumen resource and provide a number of environmental benefits such as reduced carbon dioxide emissions and smaller disposal areas.”

The $200 million Energy Innovation Fund is a cross-ministry initiative that supports Alberta’s Integrated ­Energy Vision to build on world-class knowledge, expertise and leadership and responsibly develop our vast energy resources for the benefit of current and future generations.

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