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This year the Calgary iGEM team began 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 have any concerns amongst legislators and industrial leaders.

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 in our design was that there is an opportunity for engineered organisms to outcompete existing tailings ponds bacteria, and we were pleased to hear that Christine had a similar concern. 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. Research exists with other systems such as algal bioremediation, but practical implementations of biology in the oil sands appear to be rather few and far between. 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

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 seen on the 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

Gordon Lambert, VP Sustainable Development at Suncor Inc.