|Photo by Greg Kendall-Ball/Abilene Reporter-News Chris Tesarski, CEO of Sandbox Energy, drinks from a bottle of treated wastewater from an oil well last week.|
By Greg Kendall-Ball
Instead of turning water into wine, these four men have turned an oil field waste by-product into fresh, potable water at a dusty oil lease south of Clyde Lake in Callahan County.
Tens of thousands of oil wells across the U.S. — like those scattered throughout the Big Country — use water to force oil out of rock formations and up to the surface. The briny, dirty water is then either shipped to a disposal facility or forced back into the earth through an injection well.
Disposal is expensive — so much so that thousands of wells are inoperative as a result of the cost of hauling off wastewater. Re-injecting the dirty water comes at a price, too — in wear and tear on pumps and hoses caused by the buildup of waste particles over time.
The newly formed Texas Sands Resources partnership — made up of Chris Tesarski, the CEO of Canadian oil company Sandbox Energy which owns the oil lease; Paul Fairchild of Nu-H20 from Socorro, N.M.; and J.C. and Ian Ireland of Erin Consulting of Saskatchewan — have developed a process for turning that expensive waste product into useful, clean water.
“What we have is a revolutionary application of existing technologies,” Tesarski said. “Oil and gas water is not a pretty thing. It’s certainly not drinkable, and even reusing the wastewater in oil production has its shortcomings. This new process changes that.”
The process involves two basic steps: removing solid waste particles, then desalination.
A proprietary system developed by Erin Consulting takes the dirty water and removes the solid waste particles.
Before the company’s four-stage process, there are between 90 and 100 parts per million of oil in the water pulled from the oil wells, said Ian Ireland, a chemist.
After the process, there is zero oil in the water, Ireland said.
The Irelands’ process involves first adding a chemical to improve the pH levels of the water. Next comes the magic ingredient — a nanopolymer microencapsulating flocculating dispersion, or MFD, developed at the University of New Brunswick. The milky liquid is the secret to making the whole operation work.
“Think of it as millions of little hands reaching out and grabbing onto the oil particles, then dragging them down to the bottom of the tank,” J.C. Ireland said.
After the MFD, an activator is added, then finally a conditioner, scientifically described as “goop.”
Once the chemicals are added, the water is allowed to sit. After several hours, the flocculant — all the oil and impurities encapsulated by the chemical “hands” — rests at the bottom of a tank, with a column of pure, crystal-clear water above it.
That water — free of impurities — can then be re-injected into an oil-producing well, extending the life of the equipment by reducing wear and tear and eliminating the need to dispose of it.
Or, it could be sent to the next phase: desalination.
In a process known as forward osmosis, the salty water is “tricked” into flowing across a filtering membrane into a container of water with high concentrations of ammonia. That ammonia, Fairchild said, is much easier to remove from water than the salty compounds.
The ammonia-water mix is then fed into a distilling tower where it is heated. The ammonia boils off, leaving behind pure, potable water.
Tesarski demonstrated just how potable it was by filling a bottle from a spigot on the distilling tower and taking several big gulps.
The oil lease south of Clyde Lake is the first commercial demonstration of the technology, Tesarski said.
The group plans to build a prototype facility at the lease by the summer and use it to build a client base and attract investors. Without any publicity, the group already has offers to install treatment plants on more than 10 nearby oil fields.
“Our hope is to be able to put lots of these plants on leases around here. We can make these oil fields, some that only generate two to five barrels a day, productive again, and we can generate clean, fresh water, too,” Tesarski said.
The prototype facility will be capable of treating 5,000 gallons of water per day, the group said.
The new technology could produce two things West Texas desperately needs: water and jobs.
“We’re committed to this area, this community,” said Paul Fairchild. “We’re committed to Abilene. We plan to build a facility here, to hire people here.”
© 2012 Abilene Reporter-News. Reprinted with permission. Original article can be found at http://www.reporternews.com/news/2012/apr/23/new-business-can-turn-oil-field-waste-into-water/