The Yukon may be most famous for gold, but water is among its other treasures. For mining companies that are developing operations in some of the territory’s more isolated corners, that includes drinking water for the dozens of people who may be working at any given site. 

Sabrina Clarke, a student at the Yukon Research Centre, examines ways of cleaning up water at a mine site operated by Victoria Gold.

Sabrina Clarke, a student at the Yukon Research Centre, examines ways of cleaning up water at a mine site operated by Victoria Gold. Photo credit: Amélie Janin

While there is often water to be found in such places, it can be brackish and non-potable. At the same time, transporting large amounts of clean water to these locations is an expensive business and one that also adds to the environmental footprint of any given project.

Researchers at the Yukon Research Centre (YRC) at Yukon College in Whitehorse have been testing technology that should help mining crews produce their own clean water from a local supply. This method, known as capacitive deionization, employs an electric potential between porous carbon electrodes to draw salt ions out of water and concentrate them in a separate saline pool. “At the end we have a volume of less brackish water and a smaller volume of very salty water,” says Amélie Janin, who holds YRC’s Industrial Research Chair in Mining Life Cycle.

Janin and research technician Michel Duteau have been supervising students in the testing of this method with Northern Cross, an oil and gas exploration firm that maintains a camp with some 70 people working more than 800 kilometres north of Whitehorse. The camp’s well offers only brackish water and the company is trucking in potable water every few days from a source 50 kilometres away. If the capacitive­ deionization system operates as planned, such camps would be able to run the necessary equipment with solar power and make their well water potable.

The project is one of several that Janin has undertaken since taking on the NSERC-sponsored chair at the beginning of 2013. The mining firm Victoria Gold promoted the creation of this position, which is also supported by three other companies: Alexco Resources, Capstone Mining Corporation and Yukon Zinc. “I work a lot in bioremdiation,” Janin says, noting that her career as a chemist began in this field, although she had not previously worked with the mining industry. She also points to the fact that the Yukon contains one of the world’s largest iron ore deposits, along with significant undeveloped lead-zinc deposits. In anticipation of the industrial activity these resources will generate, the chair’s mandate includes the development of new methods for mine wastewater treatment as well as cleaning up other water supplies that have been affected by mining. 

Janin is also working with Victoria Gold on the use of bacteria to remove contaminants from water tainted by mine tailings. Since mining represents about 10 percent of the territorial economy, she notes that these resource enterprises are well motivated to invest in such innovations, which can be instrumental in enabling them to meet strict environmental regulations and assuage local concerns around development. “It’s a pristine environment and we have First Nations and Yukoners who care about the land a lot,” Janin says.