Born and raised in Alberta as the son of an Oil and Gas engineer means that I have some interesting views on the industry but I’m not here to discuss them. It just means that when I was offered an opportunity to join the Biofilms Engineering Research Group, combining my personal interest in the oilpatch and my education in bioengineering, at the University of Calgary for 18 months (A summer term, a two semester thesis, and another summer term), I took it.
We were attempting to use bacteria, both naturally occurring and a commercially available consortium, to cause oil sands tailings to break apart, release trapped water and bitumen, and drastically reduce in volume. This would have potential to address the environmental issues associated with the tailings ponds in northern Alberta.
It had been previously shown that hydrodynamic forces alter the structure of biofilms and consequently the response of bacteria to environmental challenges, for example increasing the tolerance to antibiotics in higher shear regions, so we proposed that by hydrodynamically conditioning the biofilm colonies, we could significantly enhance their bioremediation properties.
We spent time researching the bioremediation properties of bacteria strains isolated from the tailings, as well as BioTiger, a patented multispecies consortium with established bioremediation properties. One very valuable lesson I learned working in a microbiology lab is that the style of experimentation is completely different to what I was used to. We ran several 10-day experiments, which were required to allow the bacteria time to grow and interact with the tailings. Months went by with mixed results – We had previously shown that BioTiger cultured as a biofilm used to treat tailings resulted in a 5-fold increase in bitumen recovery when compared to a planktonic treatment, so it was unclear why we weren’t experiencing similar beneficial results at later dates. I guess this was the second valuable lesson I learned – biological samples are fickle.
Overall, this was an incredible experience that shaped me as a researcher. The guidance and autonomy I received from my supervisor, Dr-Ing. Martinuzzi shaped how I view and approach research problems, always bringing me back to the central question of each problem I attempt to solve, making sure that each step I take is one closer to answering it.
You can skim through my entire undergraduate thesis, titled “Sedimentation of Oil Sands Tailings via Microbial Treatments” here: Undergraduate Thesis