Medical equipment helps solve Base Mine Lake monitoring mysteries

A need to solve monitoring mysteries for Base Mine Lake prompted one Syncrude researcher to turn to medical equipment and the results have been great.

Barry Bara, a senior technical specialist with the Mine Closure Research Team needed to measure the bitumen and gases on the surface of the lake. He also wanted to locate mats – deposits of bitumen formed after tailings were placed into the lake bottom – so they could be removed.

The lake is a former mine pit now reclaimed as an aquatic landscape feature that sequesters the tailings material underneath the water layer. Syncrude completed the placement of tailings into the pit at the end of 2012 and began adding fresh water.

Research dating back to the late 1970s showed the technology would turn the area into a lake capable of sustaining aquatic life, which will be incorporated into the reclaimed landscape. Syncrude had already demonstrated this through a series of test ponds. Base Mine Lake is the first time the technology is being used on a large scale in the oil sands.

Researchers have conducted extensive monitoring and testing to check the progress of the lake since 2012. One important but difficult measurement is the amount of bitumen and gas in the lake. But the team discovered you could find those elements in the ice that formed on the lake during the winter

Last winter, Barry and his team harvested 200 ice cores 60 to 70 centimetres thick from the lake.

These cores may contain gas and bitumen, which rise to the surface. During the winter, they are frozen into the ice. We want to get an idea of what is coming up in different areas of the lake.

– Barry Bara

“If you keep doing that year after year, you can identify the areas where to concentrate your remediation. Then you can demonstrate you’ve reduced the bitumen because you have the actual measurements.”

With the use of a computed tomography (CT) scanner – a medical imaging machine – Barry and his team were able to find out from the samples how much bitumen came to the surface.

In collaboration with Coanda Research and Development, Barry also pursued another piece of medical imaging equipment to locate bitumen mats at the bottom of the lake. Ultrasound machines use sound waves to see inside the human body. He saw an opportunity because ultrasound works the same as sonar-based fish finders used by recreational anglers. Syncrude bought a commercial sonar unit and Barry hopes it can identify bitumen mats.

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