Putting tailings behaviour under the microscope

Dr. Paul Simms, Professor in Environmental Engineering, Carleton University

To Dr. Paul Simms, collaboration is at the heart of innovation. Through the Natural Science and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) Collaborative Research Development program, Paul and his graduate students at Carleton University work together with COSIA member companies to learn more about how tailings behave and improve how they are managed.

Over the past four years, under Paul’s lead, the research has focused on how tailings dry and shrink, as well as how it flows and behaves. The results will help operators make better decisions about how to handle their tailings.

By understanding more about how tailings may settle under certain conditions, operators can control how they distribute their tailings, including how to set the thickness and consistency of each layer. Operators may also reduce costs by planning the location of pipes and tailings ponds better, with fewer operational changes.

“Each tailings operation is different,” explains Paul. “Whether it’s the grain size distribution of the tailings—the amount of sand—or the polymer used to treat it, each operator needs to evaluate its own operation to create the best tailings management plan.”

Through their research, Paul and his team designed an innovative tool that can be used to assist decision making about tailings disposition strategies. Paul’s research, which went on to be published in the American Society of Civil Engineers Journal of Geotechnical and Geoenvironmental Engineering, outlines how his team designed and implemented the tool, as well as how it was tested and performed.

“This tool is an achievement of sophistication and speed,” says Paul. “We used laboratory data and field data courtesy of our partners—coupled with a wizard of a PhD student—and now we have a large experimental data set on tailings that we’re using to further the model.”

Paul looks forward to the next research project with his team and COSIA, which will dig even deeper into how tailings behave over time under various conditions. “It has been a great experience collaborating with COSIA and we’re very happy to have received the support,” says Paul. “Not just the monetary support, but also in working in an oil sands field directly and alongside COSIA organizations. From our perspective, it’s been great and we hope we’re doing good work for the member companies.”

COSIA’s Tailings Environmental Priority Area provided $100,000 over four years to support Dr. Paul Simms and his Collaborative Research Development (CRD) program. In addition to the funding, Paul and his team received additional support from participating member companies, including:

  • Field data for use in research, including samples and numerical results;
  • Opportunities to participate in field work and technology meetings held by individual member companies;
  • An annual update workshop with members of the Tailings EPA to help guide the direction for future research; and
  • Collaboration with the University of Alberta’s NSERC Industrial Research Chair, Dr. Ward Wilson­—also funded by COSIA—who is a co-primary investigator for the CRD program.