New titanium industry could grow out of oilsands waste

After several years and nearly $100 million of research and testing, engineers say they have developed new technology to extract valuable metals from waste products in the Alberta oilsands.

$100M research project leads to plan for plant that would extract titanium and zircon and sell the metals

Oilsands bitumen contains a number of metals. Researchers have found ways to extract zircon and titanium from the waste product. (Titanium Corp.)

After several years and nearly $100 million of research, engineers say they have developed new technology to extract valuable metals from the waste produced by the oilsands in northern Alberta.

Canadian Natural Resources and Titanium Corp. have a proposal to construct a $400-million facility at CNR's Horizon oilsands site to produce titanium and zircon from the materials left over from bitumen production. 

Zircon is used to make ceramic tiles and other products, while titanium is used in products ranging from golf clubs and bicycles to aircraft and missiles. 

Not only could the facility be profitable, but it could also reduce the environmental footprint of the oilsands,say the researchers behind the technology.
Calgary-based Titanium Corp. is partnering with Canadian Natural Resources to extract titanium and other minerals from oilsands waste. (Titanium Corp.)

"We're looking at the opportunity to produce valuable metals in addition to our conventional products," said Meera Nathwani-Crowe, a manager of innovation at Canadian Natural Resources, which is partnering with Titanium Corp. to develop the project. 

We call it creating value from waste.- Scott Nelson, Titanium Corp.

"We're very optimistic," said Scott Nelson, chief executive of Titanium Corp. "This would be the first project. There are six sites that are candidates for our technology. So this would be an enormous new industry for Alberta — the production of minerals from the oilsands to be exported around the world — particularly China." 

As oilsands facilities collect and process bitumen from underground, materials left over are dumped into large tailings ponds. The proposed facility would extract the titanium and zircon before the waste is sent to the tailings ponds. Additional bitumen and solvents may also be recovered.

"It doesn't go out into the tailings ponds and the atmosphere where these hydrocarbons [the bitumen and solvents] create methane and other emissions," said Nelson in an interview. "It has a big environmental positive impact and it has an economic impact. We call it creating value from waste." 

Nearly $100M invested

Titanium Corp. has spent $80 million on research and received an additional $18 million in government funding as it ran pilot projects at several oilsands facilities. It plans to spend 2018 working on engineering and securing financing for a proposed $400-million facility before it goes ahead, Nelson said. Construction would begin in 2019 and the plant would be operational in late-2021 or early-2022.
Canadian Natural Resources Ltd. completed construction of a major expansion of its Horizon oilsands mine in November of 2017. CNR is partnering with Titanium Corp to extract metals from waste from oilsands production. (CNRL)

During its pilot projects, the company produced several thousand kilograms of titanium and zircon to send as samples to prospective buyers of the minerals.

"[Zircon] is currently selling for about $1,300 US a tonne. We expect to recover between that and titanium products, about 80,000 tonnes a year," said Nelson. A tonne of titanium sells for about $5,000 US.

The process of recovering valuable metals uses cyclone separation, solvent washing, flotation, boiling point differences and flocculation, according to Sustainable Development Technology Canada, which helped fund some of the initial research. 

"It's a value-added industry to the oilsands that exists because the oilsands is moving that much earth," said Kevin Birn, an oilsands analyst with IHS Markit, a research and consulting firm.

Siphoning titanium from oilsands waste is just one of the research activities in the oilsands as companies look to improve environmental performance by reducing emissions, tailings, water use and land impacts.

"There is some similar technology at other oilsands mining operations with the objective of stripping out valuable materials from the tailings," Birn said.

Dan Wicklum says greenhouse gas emissions are the biggest challenge for the oilsands. 1:24

More than 300 research projects are ongoing, with investments of more than $500 million, according to Canada's Oil Sands Innovation Alliance (COSIA), which coordinates innovation projects between oilsands companies and other researchers.

Since COSIA was formed five years ago, companies have committed $1.4 billion in technological development.

"The companies use a very deliberate planning process to make sure that they focus their effort on the technology's development where it is going to have the biggest positive impact," said Dan Wicklum, COSIA's chief executive.

Some companies decided to delay large research projects following the oil price crash in 2014, such as Suncor's $165-million Water Technology Development Centre. Following a recovery in commodity prices, the water centre is now under construction and slated to open next year. The facility will be located at Suncor's Firebag site and allow scientists to test new techniques to clean tailings ponds and reduce the amount of water used by the oilsands.
The Water Technology Development Centre was deferred because of low oil prices, but will now go ahead. (COSIA)

On average, oilsands companies have reduced their greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) by 10 per cent since 2012, according to COSIA. Last year, companies launched 29 emissions-focused research projects.

"[Oilsands companies] do not have great masses of university professors globally that are working on those specific problems right now, so I would say the GHG area is probably the one that is the most challenging," said Wicklum. "It's the most challenging for every sector everywhere, so that's not unique to oilsands." 

Alberta's oilsands produces 9.3 per cent of Canada's overall GHG emissions.

About the Author

Kyle Bakx

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Is a Calgary-based journalist with CBC's network business unit. You can contact him on Twitter at @kylebakx

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