Abstract

A major issue for the oil sand industry is the settling of thin fine tailings (TFT) which are a byproduct of the oil sand extraction process. These tailings are deposited in large ponds and settling takes decades. The aim of the present study was to increase understanding of the role of specific ion types (monovalent/divalent) present in the water in flocculation behavior, and hence the settling of flotation fine tailings of the Athabasca oil sands (which consist predominantly of kaolinite). In this study, two series of measurements were conducted and compared: one with TFT and with varying pH and salinity, and another with kaolinite suspensions with varying pH, salinity, and volume fraction. The volume fraction of kaolinite and TFT used was in the range 0.01–1% volume fraction for any ionic strength or ion. In this range the electrophoretic mobility was constant indicating that there were no particle–particle interactions, a required condition for electrophoretic mobility measurements. Electrokinetic measurements were made as a function of concentration of salt added and pH. The flocculation behavior of both TFT and kaolinite can be linked to the electrokinetic mobility at high ionic strength. The electrophoretic mobility values and therefore the electrokinetic charge of the particles were smaller for divalent salt than for monovalent salt. As a consequence, both kaolinite and fine tailings should and do flocculate more quickly in the presence of a divalent electrolyte during settling-column experiments. The electrophoretic mobility of kaolinite and tailings in electrolytes containing a majority of monovalent ions (NaCl) decreased in absolute values with decreasing pH while their electrophoretic mobility in electrolytes containing a majority of divalent ions (MgCl2) did not depend on pH. The flocculation of the fine tailings in an electrolyte where divalent ions are predominant is therefore not expected to be influenced by pH.

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