Bioreactors for oil sands process-affected water (OSPW) treatment: A critical review

Jinkai Xue, Chunkai Huang, Yanyan Zhang, Yang Liu, Mohamed Gamal El-Din

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

14 Scopus citations


Canada has the world's largest oil sands reservoirs. Surface mining and subsequent caustic hot water extraction of bitumen lead to an enormous quantity of tailings (volumetric ratio bitumen:water = 9:1). Due to the zero-discharge approach and the persistency of the complex matrix, oil producers are storing oil sands tailings in vast ponds in Northern Alberta. Oil sands tailings are comprised of sand, clay and process-affected water (OSPW). OSPW contains an extremely complex matrix of organic contaminants (e.g., naphthenic acids (NAs), residual bitumen, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs)), which has proven to be toxic to a variety of aquatic species. Biodegradation, among a variety of examined methods, is believed to be one of the most cost effective and practical to treat OSPW. A number of studies have been published on the removal of oil sands related contaminants using biodegradation-based practices. This review focuses on the treatment of OSPW using various bioreactors, comparing bioreactor configurations, operating conditions, performance evaluation and microbial community dynamics. Effort is made to identify the governing biotic and abiotic factors in engineered biological systems receiving OSPW. Generally, biofilms and elevated suspended biomass are beneficial to the resilience and degradation performance of a bioreactor. The review therefore suggests that a hybridization of biofilms and membrane technology (to ensure higher suspended microbial biomass) is a more promising option to remove OSPW organic constituents.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)916-933
Number of pages18
JournalScience of the Total Environment
StatePublished - Jun 15 2018


  • Acid extracted fraction
  • Biodegradation
  • Microbial community
  • Naphthenic acids
  • Ozonation
  • Recalcitrant organic contaminants

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