Long Haul To Extract Minerals From Oilsands Tailings Nears Destination

The CVW process.

After almost two decades and total investments in technology development that are nearing $100 million, Calgary-based Titanium Corporation may finally be closer to developing a commercial plant in Alberta to develop titanium and zircon, two valuable minerals that are used for everything from paint pigments and ceramic tiles to knee replacements and golf clubs.

The company, launched in 2001 as a result of the amalgamation of two junior mining companies, spent its early years on exploration of mining leases it held in Nova Scotia. Titanium then turned to investigating the recovery of minerals in Alberta’s oilsands industry’s tailings and in 2008 pivoted to clean tech when it commenced a research and development program to recover lost bitumen and solvents from tailings.

The Alberta government supported this program with a $3.5 million grant and Sustainable Development Technology Canada (SDTC) provided $6.5 million toward a demonstration piloting program completed in 2013. R&D was conducted in collaboration with the industry operators and government.

“Industry collaboration has been key to advancing our technology,” said Scott Nelson, Titanium’s president and CEO. “Government funding continues to be essential to the development and implementation of new sustainable technologies.”

Titanium has accelerated the development of its technology of late, thanks to a series of new funding announcements from federal and Alberta government sources.

But a decision to move ahead on commercial plants, which would cost hundreds of millions of dollars, hinges on reaching a joint project decision along with Canadian Natural Resources Limited to construct and integrate these new facilities with CNRL’s Horizon oilsands project. A project decision has not been made, as engineering work is still underway.

When asked about CNRL’s intentions for the project, Nelson said, “It’s not our place to comment on what Canadian Natural’s position is. However, we are enormously fortunate to have this relationship with them.”

CNRL would not comment on its involvement with the company. However, the company has acknowledged its involvement with Titanium on its website.

The impact of COVID-19 on the Canadian oil and gas industry has caused delays in the development of commercial plants for the Horizon site, but the engineering work on the project, first announced three years ago, continues.

Titanium has been working since then with a CNRL engineering team to design an oilsands tailings treatment system that intercepts certain tailings streams, recovering bitumen, solvent, titanium and zircon. The technology is targeted at froth treatment tailings, which are estimated to be responsible for the majority of methane emissions from tailings ponds.

Recent government funding announcements have largely been based on the environmental benefits of Titanium’s technology.

“This project started as one based on pure minerals recovery,” said Nelson, who joined Titanium in 2005 after a career working for IBM and oil and gas majors. “After we expanded technology development in 2008 to include bitumen and solvent recovery, we started receiving government funding based on its environmental benefits.”

The company’s technology, which it calls Creating Value from Waste — it trademarked this term as well as CVW and holds 21 patents for its technologies suites — not only would be aimed at recovering up to 100,000 tonnes per year of valuable minerals, but would substantially reduce greenhouse gas emissions, volatile organic compounds and other environmental impacts of oilsands mining.

It does so by recovering the bitumen, solvents, heavy minerals and water from tailings, preventing them from being deposited in tailings ponds. The bitumen and solvent will be recycled back to the oilsands production systems.

Recognition of the environmental benefits of its CVW approach reached a high point in March of 2019 when Titanium was awarded a total of $50 million from the federal Low Carbon Economy Fund Challenge and the Clean Growth Program and Alberta government’s Emissions Reduction Alberta (ERA) program.

Other funding announcements have followed, including an award of $10 million in December from SDTC and a $1.96 million award from the Clean Growth Program. The SDTC award is aimed at helping the company fund the detailed engineering phase of the CVW Horizon Project.

In December Titanium announced the signing of a project co-ordination agreement with CNRL, which includes validation of front-end engineering design of the Horizon project, optimization of the overall plant design and the updating of the capital cost estimate for the concentrate plant, tailings thickener and associated utilities. Engineering work has continued into 2021.

Nelson said the company is confident, after years of extensive lab and pilot testing, that its technology works. Titanium’s goal is to achieve first adoption of its technology and to expand its use to the other oilsands mining projects in Alberta.

However, he said it is a long journey to develop and implement new, large-scale process technologies in the oilsands, especially given the multibillion-dollar investments already having been made in those plants.

In another example of the slow adoption of technologies, he points to the decades that transpired between Karl Clark’s first oilsands technology patent and pilot in the late 1920s and the first commercial scale plant built by Suncor Energy Inc. in the 1960s.

The industry has been innovating ever since, as it grew and expanded, including the transition from drag lines and conveyors to truck and shovel mining, the paraffinic froth treatment process (now implemented at three sites), SAGD, carbon capture, cogeneration, CO2 injection in tailings and others. Many of these innovations have reduced the industry’s carbon and environmental footprint.

While there might be some applicability of Titanium’s technology to other mining sites outside the oilsands, Nelson said that is anything but a priority. “Look at the time it has taken to develop this technology and project … and it was custom-designed for the oilsands.”

He said it is a substantial engineering effort adding new process technology to an existing plant. “You need to not only build on an operating oilsands mining site, you must also integrate with existing site processes and systems,” he said.

While there are several sources of titanium and zircon in the world, mostly from beach sand deposits in southern hemisphere countries like Australia and South Africa and a small number of hard rock titanium mines in northern hemisphere countries, many of the mines are mature and there will be ready markets for both minerals, he said.

However, after years developing their technology and project, he said he and the other employees of Titanium (there are only a handful) are looking forward to a final decision to move ahead with a commercial project.

The board and management own over 20 per cent of the company’s shares, which are listed on the TSX Venture Exchange, and there are “several thousand” other shareholders, he said, mainly Canadian, who are anxious to see their years of investment made in Titanium lead to a project that could reduce the environment footprint and improve the image of oilsands mining, while also creating another income source for oilsands mine owners and, of course, for Titanium.

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