Water prize winner finds solution to oil sand pollution

Hayley Todesco has been competing in science fairs since she was nine years old. Now at 18, she has won the Stockholm Junior Water Prize for finding a faster way to remove toxic acids from oil sand tailings ponds in her home country of Canada. Her solution could dramatically reduce the amount of time it takes these pollutants to biodegrade – from hundreds of years to a couple of decades. 

By Chad Henderson                                                                                        

Extracting petroleum from oil sands is a huge business in Canada, particularly in Alberta where Hayley Todesco comes from. Some of the extraction methods result in large ponds of water full of pollutants that can threaten groundwater, wildlife and communities downstream.

“Basically the companies dig out the oil sand, separate the oil from the sand, and then they have a pit leftover,” Todesco explains. “They then dump all the leftovers in these giant pits, which are the tailings ponds. Unfortunately there are no linings in these pits, which causes groundwater issues.”

Todesco’s solution to this problem builds on a sand filtering technique already used in many places in the world for cleaning drinking water. “These ponds have a lot of bacteria and pollution in them, so my project was to take the bacteria that can survive in the ponds, and get them to grow really fast in these sand filters,” she says. “Once the bacteria grow, they can break down the toxic waste from the tailings ponds.”

So far Todesco’s research has produced amazing results. “I found that in one week the bacteria essentially cleaned up all of the naphthenic acids, which is the main pollution in the ponds,” she says. “So if you built 400 Olympic swimming-pool-sized bioreactors in the oil sands, which is a fraction of the size of the tailings ponds, you could clean out all the naphthenic acids in less than 19 years. With regular methods, this would take 264 years on average. Basically it is cleaning an environmental problem that could last for centuries in less than two decades.”

The naphthenic acids become dissolved in water as part of the oil extraction process. “Naphthenic acids are a form of water pollution that kill basically everything but bacteria: amphibians, birds and fish,” says Todesco. “It takes about 5 parts per million of naphthenic acids to kill a fish, and in tailings ponds there are 100 parts per million, so they are very deadly. That’s why plants don’t grow on tailing ponds after awhile – it’s just a solid mud surface for centuries.”

An early interest in science

Todesco’s interest in water grew from her passion in environmental issues and her love of swimming in the lakes of British Columbia every summer. “I’ve been doing science fair projects since I was nine years old, and every year I picked a different environmental issue,” she says. “In grade 8 I was researching solar technology, and I started with water problems in grade 9. Since then I have only focused on water issues.”

She started her current science project when she was 16, using her own money to buy supplies like bird bath pumps and aquarium sand from local stores. Her research has involved long hours after school and working on school holidays. “I have spent every spring break going to the lab at the University of Calgary for two years, so I haven’t had a spring holiday since I was 15,” she says.

She got the idea for her project when remembering a program from her elementary school that raised money for a charity that installs sand filters for drinking water in developing countries. “Part of the school project was to have a pen pal from the place where they installed the filter,” she says. “So I found her again on Facebook two years ago when I was looking for a project, and came up with the idea of using sand filters on tailings ponds at the same time.”

A future in microbiology

After receiving the Stockholm Junior Water Prize from H.R.H. Crown Princess Victoria of Sweden, Todesco toured the product innovation lab at Xylem, along with the other prize finalists from around the world. “It’s so great that Xylem sponsors this prize,” she says, “I’ve benefitted so much and so have the other finalists. To see the pumps downstairs is amazing.”

Todesco is currently majoring in microbiology at the University of Alberta, and plans on continuing research on her project for the next four years. Before that, however, she has been listed as a global finalist in the Google Science Fair 2014.

“My mom said I should make a website for my project since I’ve spent so much time on it,” Todesco says. “Basically for the Google Science Fair you make a website for your project, so anyone in the world can participate. I was picked as one of the top 30 in the world for my age, and I thought it would end there, but three weeks ago I was picked as the top five in the world for the oldest age category.

“In two weeks I get to fly to California and talk to astronauts at Google and see if I win. So the next month of my life is like princesses and astronauts. After doing science fairs for eight years, usually I just get a small medal from Calgary then go home for the rest of the year, but recently there have been so many results. It’s been great being recognized for my work.”

Update: Hayley Todesco has won the Google Science Fair in her age group!

Read more about Hayley Todesco’s project here.

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