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Innovator: Aref Najafi works to solve the tailings challenge

  • Name: Aref Najafi
  • Residence: Calgary, Alberta
  • Occupation: Process Innovation Lead Bitumen Production, Canadian Natural Resources Limited

Dr. Aref Najafi led the creation of a testing facility that greatly accelerates the development of tailings technologies.

As the process innovation lead with bitumen production at Canadian Natural Resources Limited, Dr. Najafi’s title almost says it all—it’s his team’s job to come up with innovative new processes to improve both environmental performance and cost efficiencies for oil sands operations at Canadian Natural.

The Challenge:

A byproduct of oil sands mining extraction of bitumen is fine fluid tailings. These are a mixture of water, sand, clay and residual oil that are stored in ponds during mining operations to allow continuous recycling of process water. Unfortunately, without intervention, it can take up to 50 years for tailings to consolidate and dry out, delaying land reclamation of the site. Companies are developing technologies to accelerate the conversion of tailings into a stable, solid material suitable for reclamation. While these technologies have shown promise in a lab setting, it can be tough to know how they’ll respond to real-world conditions.

The Innovation:

Dr. Najafi led the creation of the Applied Process Innovation Center (APIC), a 3,600-square-foot facility located at Canadian Natural’s Horizon Oil Sands site. APIC can recreate all phases of tailings technologies—from treatment in a plant to deposition into a pond, and long-term settling over time—while simulating a host of variable conditions, including weather.

“For example,” Dr. Najafi notes, “What happens if there are storm conditions? Will the material break down and fail?”

“The most exciting part of my work is the freedom to try different approaches and ideas, to apply out-of-the-box thinking while solving real-world problems.”

Using state-of-the-art equipment, computer software and mathematical models, researchers at APIC can test the robustness of their tailings technologies against things like seasonal variation, extreme weather conditions, and changes in the chemical composition of the tailings. As well, using specialized pressure and temperature-controlled chambers, it’s possible in just weeks to simulate what the tailings material would look like after decades of exposure in the real world.

These kinds of simulations enable companies to test their tailings technologies, discover weaknesses and risks for failure, and find solutions to eliminate them.

Dr. Najafi is using APIC to test and enhance Canadian Natural’s Non-Segregated Tailings (NST) technology, which dewaters tailings so that they form a homogeneous, semi-cohesive mass when deposited. “The results are very encouraging,” he says, “I believe because of adopting the culture of innovation, our tailings challenge is under control. That’s a big achievement for us.”

Thoughts on Innovation and the Environment:

Born and raised in Iran, Dr. Najafi moved to Canada, obtaining a Master of Reservoir Engineering from the University of Calgary, and a Ph.D. in Chemical Engineering from the University of Alberta. He got into the oil sands and then tailings research because he loves a unique challenge with practical applications. “The most exciting part of my work is the freedom to try different approaches and ideas, to apply out-of-the-box thinking while solving real-world problems,” he says.

He credits his team’s success to the innovation culture at Canadian Natural, including embracing Lean Six Sigma, an organizational methodology for encouraging continuous improvement among staff, from leadership to management and front-line workers.

With designations as an Environmental Professional (EP) registered with ECO Canada and a Certified Energy Manager (CEM) with the Association of Energy Engineers, Dr. Najafi is passionate about protecting the environment. He notes that what’s good for the environment is often good for the business as well. “If we reduce the size of tailings ponds, that’s good for the environment. But it also saves cost because we don’t have to maintain a large area for tailings.”