Leaving Tailings Behind
Titanium set out to reclaim oil sands minerals before they hit the tailings ponds and dropped out of the revenue stream. But the challenges it faced over its 11-year R&D journey led to environmental fixes as well
CALGARY-BASED TITANIUM HAS INVENTED A SYSTEM OF
removing minerals, bitumen and solvents from oil sands froth treatment tanks before they wind up in tailings ponds. Apart from cutting down on tailings requirements, it also cuts out greenhouse gases (GHGs). But it didn’t start out like this 11 years ago. Back then the company merely wanted to recover zircon and titanium to generate revenue. But the times they are a-changin,’ and so has the scope of the project.
When Scott Nelson, CEO of Titanium, co-founded the company in 2005, the aim was simple. “Let’s get some valuable commodities that aren’t being recovered,” Nelson says. The result was the company’s Creating Value from Waste (CVW) technology. But one of the first challenges the project faced was a lack of human resources. So instead of hiring staff directly, Titanium collaborated with as many as 10 partners, including in academia, oil sands and engineering. That allowed Titanium to focus on its core competencies in waste tailings.
One of the first collaborators was CanmetEnergy, the federal government research center south of Edmonton, where Titanium spent $30 million on a pilot project. The magnitude of the project is illustrated by the number of tests it carried out: 40,000. And finding mineral expertise was a specific challenge for all those involved. “We brought a guy in from Africa,” Nelson says. “And we shipped a lot of mineral samples to Australia.” Most of world’s mineral companies use firms in Brisbane, which he calls “the center of universe for heavy minerals technology.”
Titanium did its own hiring when it came to designing the relevant technology. It needed experienced oil sands professionals with the vision that cleaner technologies could be developed and
SCOTT NELSON, CEO OF TITANIUM, IN FRONT OF AN X-RAY DIFFRACTION MACHINE THAT FINDS VALUABLE MINERALS IN OIL SANDS FROTH TAILINGS