The research work of a young scientist in remediation of oilsands tailings is receiving prestigious accolades and national recognition. And she can trace it all back to considering a dandelion growing out of pavement—and her support systems, which, for her most recent project, included Syncrude Canada Ltd. and Alberta Innovates – Technology Futures (AITF).
“The dandelion led me to question why it would thrive in a hydrocarbon-based environment,” says Kelcie Miller-Anderson, now a first-year student in environmental science at the University of Alberta. “That led me to consider a science fair project that might create a novel remediation method with the potential to treat both mature fine tailings and the tailings water that results from oilsands production in northern Alberta.”
According to the Ernest C. Manning Awards Foundation—which presented Miller-Anderson with both its 2012 Manning Young Canadian Innovation Award and Manning Innovation Achievement Award—the research was literally a basement-lab approach in her home.
“Using sample tailings and associated water supplied by [Syncrude], Kelcie treated the industrial waste with a residual fungus from the production of oyster mushrooms,” the Manning Foundation explains. “The mycelium [vegetative part of a fungus] would release enzymes that enable the breakdown of hydrocarbons, which will then be absorbed by a fungi hyphae and transformed into fungal sugars. Her research showed a substantial reduction of petroleum hydrocarbons, naphthenic acids and pH levels, and an enhanced sodium absorption ratio of both the tailings and the tailings pond water—all major challenges to successful remediation.”
Miller-Anderson’s remediation project nabbed four of the 100 major awards sponsored by organizations and companies, including the $2,500 Chancellor’s Club scholarship for the best overall project at the 2012 Calgary Youth Science Fair. She and 11 other students then headed to the Canada-Wide Science Fair in Charlottetown, P.E.I., in May, where she picked up another four awards and prize money of $7,000.
Among those awards were the prestigious endowments from the Manning Foundation, which introduced its Young Canadian Program in 1992. It recognizes eight innovative projects selected at the Canada-Wide Science Fair, and then, after a second judging process, four of those receive the higher Manning Young Canadian Innovation Award.
Miller-Anderson also had the opportunity to rub shoulders with the industry’s leading innovators at the Alberta ASTech awards gala. Each year, the ASTech Foundation, an organization established in 1989 to recognize the bright minds and creative organizations behind outstanding science and technology accomplishments, hosts a gala to celebrate industry achievements. As the Alberta student with the best showing at the Canada-Wide Science Fair, Miller-Anderson was invited to attend the awards gala through a sponsorship from the Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists of Alberta.
“We invite the student to attend the ASTech awards gala to watch the [award winners’] stories and meet them because innovation inspires innovation,” explains Bev Jones, ASTech’s executive director. “Science and technology and innovation provide the solutions to current challenges.”
The goal is to inspire young people to get involved in the industry, which is challenged in “attracting and retaining qualified human capital. There’s a shortage of willing workers—skilled labour—particularly in science and technology.”
Miller-Anderson’s mom, Karen Miller, knew early on that as soon as Miller-Anderson was old enough, she wanted her daughter in the Calgary Science School when it launched its charter for grades 4 through 9 in what happened to be their neighbourhood school.
The experience of Miller’s older child had taught her she wanted more innovation in the classroom than the public system could support—although she laughs ruefully about the long-term impact. “Now I just have to get Kelcie through university,” she says. “She prefers her own work [to prescribed course work]. She’s never really liked actual school work.”
The Science School offers a full and balanced program while “integrating science into everything,” explains Miller. The school, which hosts its own science fair to prepare students to be among the 900 or so who enter the acclaimed Calgary Youth Science Fair each spring, helped spark Miller-Anderson’s interest in science fairs. “[Participation in the fairs] is really encouraged through all the grades, given a lot of class time and support, and it built her interest,” Miller says.
Miller-Anderson won her first science fair award in Grade 6, and there was no looking back. She made it into the nationals in Grade 9, and when she moved to a regular school for Grade 10, she kept on with the science fair even though she was the only one in her school to enter. For her final two years of school she attended Bishop Carroll High School because its self-directed program allowed her to incorporate laboratory work at the University of Calgary.
After doing a microbiology science fair project in Grade 11, Miller-Anderson revisited and revamped her interest in oilsands reclamation for last year’s project—and it has paid off handsomely. She has plugged right in to Alberta’s mentoring system.
Bonnie Drozdowski, lead of the reclamation program at AITF, first connected with Miller-Anderson during her Grade 10 science fair project on remediation. “She googled people doing remediation research, and her mom contacted me to ask if she could ask questions. I helped her on that project, read through her results and offered insights. Two years later, she had this idea and called and asked if I would help her. She asked if I could help her understand the industry and obtain some materials to use in her experiment.”
Drozdowski sees the connection as being mutually beneficial: “We have a need for scientists who are interested at an applied level,” she says. “[For a student] who could potentially make a contribution, I provided as much assistance as I could. People opened doors for me in my career—if I can return that favour, I have intentions of doing that wherever I can.”
Miller-Anderson revisited her interest in oilsands reclamation for her Grade 12 project—exploring the idea that the fungi that enable dandelions to be the first plants to grow on reclaimed oilsands lands might be a tool for remediating tailings.
“Based on what Kelcie was hoping to do—grow the fungi in the tailings material—she would need to determine if she had achieved any type of remediation, so she had to know concentration of hydrocarbons before and after, and the chemistry of the material. We have several different labs and performed the analyses for her for free. Those are complicated analyses you study through a degree to understand.
“[AITF] was very supportive because it takes opportunities to enhance new minds to be interested in science. I was very impressed with Kelcie’s level of understanding in the science field. The level was higher than high school, that’s for certain,” Drozdowski says.
In her reclamation research, Drozdowski works closely with Syncrude, so she connected Miller-Anderson with a tailings expert and led her through the steps Syncrude requires to acquire samples of process water and mature fine tailings.
“One of our researchers spent an hour with her and said she had insightful questions about oilsands and tailings,” says Syncrude media relations adviser Cheryl Robb. “When we see passion like that at an early age, we like to encourage it. We have probably 200 co-op students on our site at any given time. [They] come from universities and colleges across Canada. It’s how we recruit people; they come back as employees.”
Syncrude also recruits ideas.
“Research and asking questions is a big part of who Syncrude is today,” Robb says. “We get four or five suggestions every week from folks, members of the public or at universities or vendors. We have a process we take them through to validate their ideas. We welcome them.”
According to the Manning Foundation, Miller-Anderson’s research has provided enough encouragement for her to consider future additional environmental remediation research at the University of Alberta, which is home to the Centre for Oil Sands Innovation. As for her research itself, Manning Foundation founder and former president David Mitchell said that “even at the rudimentary stage of this innovative approach to solve present-day challenges, this project will be of interest to Canada’s energy sector.”
For more information about Miller-Anderson’s work in remediation, watch the video at manningawards.ca/awardsyoungcanadians/ 2012-miller-anderson.shtml
Using sample tailings and associated water supplied by Syncrude Canada Ltd., Bishop Carroll High School student Kelcie Miller-Anderson treated the industrial waste with a residual fungus from the production of oyster mushrooms.
The mycelium [vegetative part of a fungus] would release enzymes that enable the breakdown of hydrocarbons, which would then be absorbed by the fungi hyphae and transformed into fungal sugars. Her research showed a substantial reduction of petroleum hydrocarbons, naphthenic acids and pH levels, and an enhanced sodium absorption ratio of both the tailings and the tailings pond water.
In addition to reducing the level of all major constituents of concern, the fungi were also shown to prompt the formation of a biofilm in all experiments. It was also shown to cause consolidation amongst some of the mature fine tailings. These are two additional findings that have potential in the objectives of remediation research.