The mining and refining of oil sands in northern Alberta produces large volumes of wastewater, also known as oil sands process-affected water (OSPW), which is stored in massive tailings ponds at the mine sites. OPSW accumulates numerous pollutants and since this water cannot be treated at this time, it is stored indefinitely and not released into the environment. Government mandated testing and water monitoring is ongoing using conventional analytical methods.
Biosensors offer an alternative detection method that is less expensive and simpler while being specific and sensitive to pollutants. We are using engineered bacterial isolates to detect and respond to specific pollutants in OSPW. Biosensors are rapid, inexpensive and can facilitate high throughput testing of water samples.
Our primary focus for biosensors is naphthenic acids, which are a natural component of oil sands. They are abundant in tailings pond, but are toxic to bacteria, fish, mammals and humans at far lower concentrations. Naphthenic acids can be degraded, but certain complex structures are slow to degrade in both lab experiments and in situ. We are also planning metagenomic experiments to identify the bioremediation pathways for naphthenic acids.
The biosensor technology also has applications for testing of pharmaceuticals in municipal wastewater. Many medicines do not degrade in water treatment plants and can still be detected at low concentrations in the effluent water released after treatment. We are designing biosensors as an alternative detection method for pharmaceuticals in municipal water.
Dr. Shawn Lewenza