Application: Oil Sands

The primary platform of our project is monitoring watersheds that may be affected by seepage from oil sands tailings. In order to move forward with this application, it is crucial to understand current monitoring methods, their limitations, and critically assess the viability of our device for deployment for this purpose.

In 2011, the Water Monitoring Data Review Committee (WMDRC) prepared a report for the Government of Alberta that evaluating existing data on the contamination of the Athabasca watershed in Alberta by oil sands extraction processes. They focused on the limitations of water monitoring systems in place at the time. They recognized that due to fluctuations of chemical concentrations over time and space in aquatic systems, the quantity of data is a large limitation in arriving at any definitive conclusions about environmental impacts. Data collection can be limited by duration and temporal frequency of sampling, spatial range and distribution, detection limits, precision, and specificity, as well as consistency of measurement. They recommended that oil sands water monitoring be focused on the “status and trends in key pollutants over time and space,” including PAHs and arsenic. They highlighted that weekly and monthly sampling is inadequate to account for short-term “pulses,” so timing is key. Another major improvement that they suggested was to improve the sensitivity of lab measurement for PAHs and trace metals.

In early 2012, the governments of Canada and Alberta initiated a new oil sands monitoring plan with the goal of being “scientifically rigorous, comprehensive, integrated, and transparent.” The primary purpose of oil sands monitoring is to be able to assess the long-term effects of oil sands monitoring on the environment by collecting data more frequently over time and space. Specifically, water monitoring is focused on assessing the nature and extent of contamination from oil sands waste in the Athabasca watershed. Currently, water is sampled on a monthly basis to test quality at multiple sites, with a few automated sondes beginning to be installed.

While this new plan seeks to address many of the concerns raised by the WMDRC, it can still be significantly improved by efforts like our own. Specifically, our sensing platform is continuous, long-term, and can be implemented relatively cheaply, allowing for more deployment sites. In addition, biosensing in general is highly specific relative to chemical methods, and biological systems can be refined to be highly sensitive and have very low limits of detection (this flexibility is not necessarily afforded by chemical methods). Our device also can submit data wirelessly to a remote server, allowing for automated collection of data. Our vision for this device is to create a sensor network that collects continuous data, with identical, well-calibrated sensors whose data can easily be compiled into one consistent database for subsequent analysis. This network would account for short- and long-term trends and allow for any necessary adjustments to spatial distribution.

Environment Canada. (2012, July). Backgrounder: Fact Sheet - Joint Canada-Alberta Implementation Plan for Oil Sands Monitoring Six Month Update. Retrieved from

Water Montioring Data Review Committee. (2011, March 7). Evaluation of Four Reports on Contamination of the Athabasca River System by Oil Sands Operations. Retrieved from