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This year the Calgary iGEM team undertook our project with human practices in mind. While we had established a research objective to produce a biosensor and bioreactor system, we wanted to ensure that our system was relevant to the industry where it would be employed. As well, we wanted to ensure that academic, government, and industry professionals' concerns were taken into consideration during the design process of our system. In order to best accomplish this, we conducted interviews with two leaders in oilsands reclamation. We approached a major oilsands company, Suncor, and talked to Christine Daly, an Ecologist who works in Environmental Cleanup. We then approached Ryan Radke, the president of BioAlberta. BioAlberta focuses on bringing biotechnology to our province and develop these in an industrial setting. His experience allowed us to better predict if our project would raise concerns among legislators and industrial leaders.

Initial Interviews

Talking with Suncor's Christine Daly on Biology in the Oil Sands

We spoke with Christine Daly, an Aquatic Reclamation Research Coordinator at Suncor Energy Inc. Christine expressed an interest in our project in 2011 and was willing to discuss this year’s project design with us. One major point that was brought up early on was that engineered organisms might outcompete existing tailings ponds bacteria, and Christine had similar reservations. To address these concerns, we created our bioreactor system, which would physically contain our bacteria, and also a genetic killswitch mechanism. Another interesting point brought up in this discussion was how the oil industry is currently looking into biology as one of many potential alternative methods to remediate the toxic components of tailings ponds and the oil sands in general. There is research using other systems such as algal bioremediation, but practical implementations of biology in the oil sands are rare. Oil industries do, however, appear to show an increased interest in biology (and in turn, synthetic biology) as a possible solution to various problems, a sentiment reflected in our dialogue with the Oil Sands Leadership Initiative.

The full interview can be viewed below.

BioAlberta's Ryan Radke on Biology in the Oil Sands

We were also able to consult with BioAlberta president Ryan Radke on the viability of using biologically based systems in the petroleum industry. He believed that bioremediation technologies will be critical to the future of the oil sands in the next 10-15 years, however he raised the concern of how we could sell biotechnology to an industry that is already very successful from a profit point of view. He emphasized the social welfare benefits that the industry, under heavy environmental criticism, could gain from this technology as a major selling point and stressed the need to educate the oil industry about the benefits of synthetic biology. This would involve putting aspects of our system into large-scale, comprehensive terms to sell to those without a biology background. For example, quantifying the amount of toxins that the system can process per unit time and the value of hydrocarbons produced is something that could potentially appeal to investors. We feel as though the synthetic biology dialogue with the Oil Sands Leadership Initiative was a great start to bridging the gap between the petroleum industry and synthetic biology. From a public perspective point of view we discussed the need to stress the fact our system is simply a modification of "natural" processes - that is we are only modifying bacteria native to the tailings ponds, not introducing new organisms to the environment. To further address safety concerns, we also need to emphasize the multiple layers of biological and physical control that we plan to design.

Follow-Up Interviews

Our second iteration of interviews were conducted once we had a more concrete product built. The purpose of these interviews was to see whether we had successfully addressed the concerns of the first iteration interviews. We also wanted to see whether any new issues with the design existed, which would provide us with potential future directions to take FRED and OSCAR. Kelly Roberge, an independent oil consultant, suggested we look into various ways to deal with the clay and silt particles that can enter our bioreactor system, which can be a major problem since mature fine tailings have a thick consistency that could clog the system.

Kelly Roberge, of K. Roberge Consulting Ltd. Discussing Bioreactor Improvements

We spoke to Kelly Roberge of K. Roberge Consulting Ltd. who is an independent consultant for the oil sands focusing on mature fine tailings (MFT). He mentioned that in the past 4 years, there has been an increase in looking at biological techniques in the oil sands for remediation, both in understanding natively present microbial life as well as introducing engineered systems.

The major concerns that he had with our design at this point were issues with scale-up. These were things such as the amount of toxins that would need to be added to the system to provide constant production of our product, residence time in the bioreactor, as well as the ability for our system to be scaled up to an industrial size. Though we still have much research to do towards this goal of reaching industrial capacity, we did a model scale-up experiment of OSCAR by growing the PetroBrick containing E. coli in our model bioreactor system. The results of this experiment can be found on our Synergy page.

In addition, there was a concern raised with the composition of the tailings themselves, due to the mature fine tailings sludge (MFT). In the future we will have to look at the limitations in terms of the capacity of OSCAR to deal with these MFT components. Some suggestions that were made would be to utilize OSCAR in parallel with MFT settling techniques or with runoff water from the tailings drying processes. The sensitivity of our system to this grime and to bitumen would also have to be evaluated and made compatible with the substrates we will be adding in to the system.

William Sawchuk, of ARC Resources

William Sawchuk, a reservoir engineer at Arc resources, agreed to talk with us about the main parts of our project. This interview confirmed that biological methods, and specifically our project, are definite possibilities of remediation in the oil sands if they can prove to be faster and less harmful than current methods. One concern that William brought up was that there needs to be extra safety factors put in place to avoid posing danger to the environment. This again, serves to further validate the approach that we took to safety, designing both structural and genetic killswitch devices. In the later part of our project, we have also been trying to work on establishing a glycine auxotrophic killswitch to add yet another layer of safety which we feel is necessary.

Similar to Mr. Roberge, another thing Mr. Sawchuk brought up was scale-up. Specifically, he talked about feasibility and cost a scale-up of the project would cost and if this is less expensive than the current remediation methods. To this end, we’ve been experimenting with starting to get our bioreactor working and have performed an initial validation assay that we can use it in conjunction with our belt skimmer to produce and harvest hydrocarbons, which can be found on our Synergy page. The next step is to scale-up further! The exact cost is a bit tricky. Since the conversion of toxins in the tailings ponds into useful hydrocarbons is a relatively novel idea, it is somewhat difficult to analyze what the cost of a scale-up would be at this point. This is an extremely important future direction for us however.

Gordon Lambert, VP Sustainable Development at Suncor Inc.

Gordon Lambert is the VP Sustainable Development at Suncor Energy Inc. We asked him whether or not the oil sands industry would find technology such as this useful. There was a very positive response. The Oil Sands Leadership Initiative is very keen on searching for any solutions to tackle the tailings ponds, which are considered to be one of the biggest issues in the oil sands currently. OSLI is collaborating with organizations that run competitions globally for oil sands solutions and other bodies such the Canada's Oil Sands Innovation Alliance (COSIA). Similar to Kelly Roberge's comment, mature fine tailings can be dried and solidified, but in turn it liberates water from the clay and sand. This water cannot be used for any industrial purposes until it is detoxified. Ideally, this water can be detoxified sufficiently to be returned as tailings pond surface water and become reusable in the bitumen extraction process.

In order to deploy our biosensor and bioreactor system, it was suggested that we look into various regulatory boards within Alberta such as Alberta Environment and the Energy Resources Conservation Board (ERCB) to attempt to obtain permits to begin attempting pilot programs. Scale-up of the bioreactor is also a major consideration in order for us to push it off the bench and into the field.

The full interview can be found below. If it does not load, click here.