Teenager invents faster way to clean up toxic tar sands waste using sand and bacteria

hayley todesco oilsands clean up
© Hayley Todesco

An 18-year-old from Canada has invented a way to clean up the toxic waste produced from extracting oil from tar sands. Hayley Todesco used knowledge gained from fifth grade science to come up with a filtration system using sand and bacteria to quickly break down the waste.

This waste is usually stored in tailings ponds, where it will take centuries to break down. In 2010, tailings ponds took up about 68 square miles (176 square kilometers), but by 2020 that area is expected to grow to 96.5 square miles (250 square kilometers), all full of toxic waste.

Todesco remembered a sand filter that her class had made in fifth grade that completely cleaned muddy water that was poured over it. She combined that knowledge with an interest she had in biology and bioreactors that use bacteria to break down waste. She figured combining sand and bacteria would make a device that was far more effective.

With help from University of Calgary professor Lisa Gieg who let her work in her lab, Todesco began a seven month process to create a filter device that could break down naphthenic acid, a major toxic component of the oil sands tailings. She cobbled together a system that used aquarium sand, empty IV bags, and other materials she picked up at hardware and dollar stores. The finished product uses gravity to pull oil sands waste through IV bags filled with sand topped with a film of bacteria.

Once she got a working system, it took another year and half of testing and analysis, but ultimately her invention was able to break down toxic compounds from tar sands waste 14 times more quickly than the current method of containing it in tailings ponds. That means a large-scale technology that incorporates her findings could get toxic waste out of the tar sands area in decades instead of centuries.

Just last week it was announced that she won the Google Science Fair for her age group, beating out other 17 and 18 year olds from around the world with her novel filter design and research.

You can see her video submission for the Google Science Fair below.

Teenager invents faster way to clean up toxic tar sands waste using sand and bacteria
The breakthrough also scored 18-year-old Hayley Todesco a Google Science Fair Award.

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