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Suncor CEO Rick GeorgeJeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press

Suncor is deploying a new oil sands cleanup technology to sharply reduce its need for tailings ponds, which store the toxic effluent from oil sands projects.

The energy giant's technology, called Tailings Reduction Operations, has already led to the cancellation of plans to build five new tailings ponds since the company says they'll no longer be needed. In coming years, the company will also be able to reduce the number of existing ponds from eight to just one, Bradley Wamboldt, Suncor's director of tailings reduction operations, said last week.

It's a substantial shift for an industry that has already spread pollutant-laced, oil-slicked ponds over 170 square kilometres, equivalent to 1.5 times the size of the city of Vancouver. Suncor's tailings pond operations alone cover 40 square kilometres. Plans call for TRO to shrink that by roughly 80 per cent, much of it in the next decade.

"You have massive change coming at you," Suncor chief executive officer Rick George said. "And it's happening a lot quicker than we ever get credit for. … We're on a path here for the next decade to start reclaiming land at a faster pace than we're opening up new mines."

Tailings ponds are the massive man-made structures designed to trap contaminated water that companies have, until now, been unable to treat effectively. The key problem has been a substance called "mature fine tailings," a yogurt-like suspension of clay in water that is created by the bitumen extraction process, which washes oil sands with hot water.

Left to natural processes, that clay won't fall out of the water for centuries, creating an increasingly large problem for the oil industry, which produces huge amounts of it and must store it until it can be cleaned up. Suncor alone has amassed 200 million cubic metres of mature fine tailings - enough to fill Toronto's Rogers Centre 125 times.

The Suncor TRO technology, the result of research dating back to 2003, uses a substance called a polymer that rapidly separates the water from the clay. In just two or three weeks, it can transform the liquid tailings into a dry, hard surface.

"It's an honest breakthrough. No one thought this was possible," said Sean Wells, Suncor manager for research engineering.

The company spent $250-million figuring out how to do it. It holds patents on the technique, which it keeps secret even from the manufacturers of the polymer.

Since TRO allows Suncor to build fewer tailings ponds, the company estimates the technology will save it $1-billion over the next two decades.

That's despite the cost of building areas to dry out the tailings. Even once they are mixed with the polymer, the tailings must be laid out in large sloping fields for the water to separate out. Suncor currently has 350 hectares of such fields. By 2013, it will have between 500 and 600 hectares. It's spending $1.2-billion over the next two years to advance the technology, which it has offered to others in the industry for a price.

Mr. George makes no apologies for trying to sell TRO, which for all its promise has yet to find its way to other oil sands miners.

"What we're talking about is we want to help recoup our R&D costs. That's a reasonable request," Mr. George said.

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