There is money to be made in oil sands tailings waste
Technology under development could produce minerals used in consumer products from tailings waste
Titanium and zircon, mineral sands that are used to produce multiple consumer products including dentures and cosmetics, can be recovered from oil sands tailings.
As the world’s population continues to increase and manufacturers work to keep up with growing demand for goods, the need for titanium and zircon – key ingredients in many products from dentures and cosmetics to air purification systems and house paint – is on the rise.
With new technology being developed in Canada, the growing need for these rare minerals could be met using what is currently a waste product: tailings from oil sands mining. This could create a new revenue stream for the sector while helping reduce greenhouse gas emissions and making tailings reclamation easier.
“The oil sands deposits in Canada have a long life and will provide many decades of this new resource,” says Scott Nelson, CEO of Calgary-based Titanium Corporation. The company has invested nearly $100 million to develop ways to recover valuable commodities that would otherwise be lost to tailings settling basins. “Our aim is industry-wide implementation of our Creating Value from Waste technology.”
The technology is an example of “opportunities that accelerate the innovation required to strengthen Alberta’s economy and reduce greenhouse gases,” says Steve MacDonald, CEO of Emissions Reduction Alberta, which funded $5 million of engineering in 2018-19 and awarded an additional $5 million to the project in 2020.
Both the provincial and federal governments have contributed approximately $20 million to advance the project toward commercial service.
Global demand for titanium and zircon is expected to exceed supply by 2023 as mature mines in the southern hemisphere – typically developed from beach sands and dunes – are depleted.