Heavy Minerals from Alberta’s Oil Sands

CIM MineSpace 2001
John Oxenford, Julian Coward, Srdj Bulatovic,
Abstract There are currently two operators producing oil from the surface-mineable portions of Alberta’s oil sands (Syncrude Canada Ltd. and Suncor Inc.) and two other companies are proposing to enter the industry (Shell Canada in 2002 and Koch Industries in 2004). Tailings from the two current oil sands plants contain approximately 220,000 tonnes per year of TiO2 and approximately 80,000 tonnes per year of zircon. This represents approximately 5% of the world’s TiO2 consumption and approximately 10% of the world’s zircon production. With the commissioning of plants by Shell and Koch, and the announced expansion of plants by Syncrude and Suncor, it is expected that these tonnages would treble in the next ten years. All of these operators have at least 50 years of reserves even at these expanded production rates.

The occurrence of heavy minerals in Alberta’s oil sands has long been known and is well documented in the literature. There have been a number of attempts to produce market-grade products from this resource and the results of this work have been quite mixed. Typically, researchers have used the normal mineral dressing techniques of the industry and have found the mineral assemblage does not respond to these techniques all that well. This has led to the widely-held suspicion that there must be some difficult metallurgical problems associated with this resource.

There are three main problem areas that have created problems for previous researchers: 1) the bitumen coating on the sand grains; 2) secondary mineralization such as pyrite, siderite and calcite; and 3) a high proportion of aluminosilicates (approximately 25%) that have the same gravity, electrostatic and magnetic properties as other minerals in the heavy mineral suite. Recent work by Lakefield Research shows that these problems can be largely overcome with some novel approaches. The bitumen can be removed by washing with a solvent in the presence of a demulsifier. The pyrite can be removed by flotation. And the titanium and zircon minerals can be separated by selective flotation followed by conventional electrostatic and magnetic separation.

Product qualities achieved by these techniques will be discussed along with potential tonnages from this resource.
Keywords: demulsifier, Oil sands, Tailings, Heavy minerals, Ilmenite, zircon, Bitumen, rutile, Flotation
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