CALGARY — The dust clouds made it difficult to see and breathe as the big trucks rumbled along access roads at Suncor Energy’s MacKay River oil sands site. Suncor’s traditional dust control strategy of spraying water from a truck just wasn’t working. On a hot summer day, the liquid would evaporate within 15 minutes.
So Canada’s largest energy company enlisted the help of General Electric to get its dust problem under control using a glue of sorts to bind the particles together. The result has been smoother, safer roads at its operations in northeastern Alberta, along with reductions in water and fuel use.
In 2012, the company tested out a new method that uses a by-product of pulp and paper manufacturing to make the dirt stay put. The organic and biodegradable compound was used throughout the entire site in 2013 and Suncor maintenance co-ordinator Gwen Morgen says she’s had rave reviews from staff on site.
The partnership involves more than GE just selling the dust-busting glue to Suncor. The two have worked out a dust control program that also includes road maintenance tailored to Suncor’s specific needs.
GE has a business unit dedicated to dust control at industrial sites around the world, including mines and power plants.
The old water spraying technique, in addition to not being particularly effective, can also damage roads, said Jeniffer Brown, GE’s global lead product applications specialist.
“If you go on an unpaved road during very heavy rainy season, it creates a lot of potholes, so you create a safety issue on the road,” she said. “Watering frequently generates those problems as well.”
Now, with less wear and tear on the roads, repairs involving heavy equipment like graders need to be done less frequently, Brown added.
In the past, Suncor would send an average of five water trucks a day along its roads to keep the dust down. Now, only one truck is needed. The result has been an 85% reduction in water use for this purpose, saving 136 million litres of water annually. It’s also cut diesel use by 70,000 L, resulting in 190 fewer tonnes of carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere.
The partnership with GE is part of a wider Suncor effort to reduce water use at its oil sands operations – one of the major environmental concerns associated with that type of energy development.
According to the Pembina Institute, an environmental think-tank, producing one barrel of bitumen from an oil sands mine requires 2.4 barrels of fresh water, after accounting for recycled water.
Suncor is expecting to produce between 400,000 and 430,000 bbl/d of crude from the oil sands this year.
Suncor has been working on cutting the volume of wastewater that sits in enormous tailings ponds, which also include sand, clay and residual bitumen. About a year ago, it began sending 10,000 m3/d of tailings water from its base oil sands mining operations to be used at its steam-driven Firebag project, according to its 2013 Report on Sustainability.
A $150-million wastewater treatment facility is also expected to start up this year, further reducing the amount of water it needs to draw from the Athabasca River.
© 2014 The Canadian Press
This story originally appeared in CMJ’s sister publication, Canadian Manufacturing’s newsletter, Feb. 3, 2014.