Haley Todesco, a Canadian student, is the big winner in Stockholm this week. She received the 2014 Stockholm Junior Water Prize for inventing a method of using sand filters to separate oil and water, leaving the water clean and reusable.
Sand filter technology, traditionally used to treat drinking water, has been around since 1804. Now Todesco adapted it for use on contaminated water in oil sands tailings ponds. Her method is said to be faster than conventional processes because the sand filters grow bacteria that effectively eat the oil.
“This year’s winning project addresses a neglected but pressing environmental issue. The entry displays genuine outside the box thinking. Hundreds of hours of self-driven effort achieved a project that excelled in all judging criteria,” said the jury in its citation.
“By happy coincidence the topic is on the cutting edge of the water-energy nexus. Tailings from tar sands pose a serious and growing environmental problem. Slow sand filters may date back to the 19th century, but the winner proved them applicable to 21st century problems,” the jury concluded.
Todesco said after she received the award that she got the idea of using sand filters from a pen pal in Namibia two years. She then began testing the filters on wastewater at home. Now she is studying to become a microbiologist and plans to continue improving her method.
That kind of thinking – the kind that finds proven, inexpensive technologies can be adapted to non-traditional uses – is going to go a long way towards cleaning up the deleterious by-products. Our oil sands producers are well aware that the environment must be remediated and preserved if they are ever to be embraced by the “green” community. Already they have spent millions on tailings technologies to remove one of the biggest eyesores in the industry, but much more is to be done.
Now there is a new tool that may help solve an environmental nightmare. Industry should support further investigation and the young mind behind the technique.