Dentures from the oil sands? You bet

Technology under development could produce minerals used in consumer products from tailings waste

By Diane Cook
Titanium and zircon, mineral sands that are used to produce multiple consumer products including dentures and cosmetics, can be recovered from oil sands tailings.

As the world’s population continues to increase and manufacturers work to keep up with growing demand for goods, the need for titanium and zircon – key ingredients in many products from dentures and cosmetics to air purification systems and house paint – is on the rise.

With new technology being developed in Canada, the growing need for these rare minerals could be met using what is currently a waste product: tailings from oil sands mining. This could create a new revenue stream for the sector while helping reduce greenhouse gas emissions and making tailings reclamation easier.

“The oil sands deposits in Canada have a long life and will provide many decades of this new resource,” says Scott Nelson, CEO of Calgary-based Titanium Corporation. The company has invested nearly $100 million to develop ways to recover valuable commodities that would otherwise be lost to tailings settling basins.

“Our aim is industry-wide implementation of our Creating Value from Waste technology.”

The technology is an example of “opportunities that accelerate the innovation required to strengthen Alberta’s economy and reduce greenhouse gases,” says Steve MacDonald, CEO of Emissions Reduction Alberta, which funded $5 million of engineering in 2018-19 and awarded an additional $5 million to the project in 2020.

Both the provincial and federal governments have contributed approximately $20 million to advance the project toward commercial service.

Global demand for titanium and zircon is expected to exceed supply by 2023 as mature mines in the southern hemisphere – typically developed from beach sands and dunes – are depleted.

According to research by Australia-based Iluka Resources, projects around the world produced about 1.2 million tonnes of zircon and 7.4 million tonnes of titanium dioxide (TiO2) in 2018. Adding Canada’s oil sands to the mix could substantially increase supply, Nelson says.

There are six oil sands mining operations that produce the specific froth treatment tailings which contain titanium and zircon.

“While the production rates vary a bit among these sites, we estimate our technology would be able to recover in the range of 100,000 to 150,000 tonnes per year of valuable minerals from a typical site or between 600,000 and 900,000 tonnes per year if installed at all of the mining froth treatment sites,” Nelson says.

According to oil sands leader Canadian Natural Resources, industry-wide deployment of the technologies could reduce GHG emissions by approximately 570 kilotonnes of CO2 equivalent per year, as well as provide cleaner tailings, thereby accelerating reclamation.

Canadian Natural spent $473 million on technology research and development in 2019, up from $265 million in 2018, according to the latest ranking by Research InfoSource.

The company is working with Titanium Corporation on the first commercial-scale plant for its mineral sands recovery technologies, to be located at Canadian Natural’s Horizon oil sands project site.

The companies recently completed basic engineering design and are now reviewing that work, which includes cost estimates and economics. Nelson says next steps include planning and executing detailed engineering for construction of full-scale facilities.

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