Whale of a filter

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City company's tech could clean tailings ponds

By Kevin Ma

An Australian company with a headquarters in St. Albert says it has a fancy filter that could help shrink the size of Alberta’s tailings ponds.

David Dooley of Baleen International showed off one of his company’s filter systems to the Gazette this week.

Baleen is based out of Adelaide, Australia, and set up its five-person Canadian office in St. Albert two years ago.

“It was a good central spot to hit the oilsands from,” says Dooley, the company’s president, plus his wife was from St. Albert.

The company has about a thousand systems in operation worldwide but is just getting started in Canada – the one the Gazette saw was one of the 15 in the nation.

Dooley’s company is part of a new trend in waste management called resource recovery, where the waste from one process becomes the raw material for another.

“There’s a lot of energy and material embedded in wastewater streams,” says Aaron Fisher, an engineer with the Virginia-based Water Environment Research Foundation, but most cities and companies currently flush it all down the drain. That’s lead to problems such as the growing dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico caused by fertilizer runoff. Filtration systems can let you recover chemicals from wastewater for reuse.

Traditional floatation/settling systems are pretty slow – in the case of the tailings ponds in the oilsands, they can take centuries to settle out.

Dooley, the president of Baleen, says he’s working with oil companies up north to see if his company’s product can get the job done faster.

“The demand is there, and the political pressures are there.”

The system itself is named after the filter-feeder system used by some whales, Dooley says. The outside of the device looks like a shed-sized stainless steel sandwich press. Inside is what looks like a sheet of metal but is actually a springy screen made of zillions of wires.

“It’s like a trampoline, almost,” Dooley says, pressing on it.

The screen contains hundreds of thousands of holes that can be as small as 20 microns across – about a fifth the width of the average human hair. Dump contaminated water on this, and it will filter out any dirt, scraps, blood, tailings, and some bacteria from it. The filtered water isn’t clean enough to drink, but can be returned to the environment or reused by industry.

What’s unique about this device is that it’s self-cleaning, Dooley says. A spray arm washes debris off the screen to keep it clear and to allow for easy collection.

“Water is a big cost up here,” Dooley says, in a later interview from northern Alberta, and companies are interested in cutting their water use.

Dooley says these filters have helped Alberta’s Absolute Enviro Solutions (which cleans oil-industry filters up north) save about 88,000 L of water per filter and virtually eliminate its wastewater, and allowed Peabody Energy in Australia to recover coal particles from its wash plants for resale.

“We’re giving them back an asset they previously lost.”

Transportation shop manager Les Zenchyzer says his company, Venture West Transport, has had one of Dooley’s systems hooked to its truck wash for about six years.

“When it works good, it works good,” he says – it was in for repairs as of this week.

Venture washes 20 to 30 trucks a day and uses a maybe a thousand gallons of water per wash, Zenchyzer says. The filter lets them strain the grit out of that wash-water for re-use.

“Instead of using fresh water all the time, we can recycle the water.”

Dooley believes his product could help Alberta oil companies reclaim the two to four per cent of the oil they extract but currently ditch into tailings ponds. It could also theoretically double the speed at which companies could get tailings out of tailings ponds in the oilsands – instead of dredging the tailings and having them sit on a drying pad for months, you just dump the water through here.

Albertans often think we have plenty of water, but the water we use today is the same stuff that was circulating back when dinosaurs were around, Dooley says.

“I’m looking at the Athabasca (River) every day at work here, and it doesn’t look that full to me.”

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About Author

Kevin Ma

Kevin Ma joined the St. Albert Gazette in 2006. He writes about Sturgeon County, education, the environment, agriculture, science and aboriginal affairs. He also contributes features, photographs and video.