By EPCM World contributor Serina Penner
Saltwater, which occurs naturally in the water table, is commonly found throughout oil-rich areas of the world – especially in the oil wells of Nothern Canada and Alberta. Saltwater, which accompanies the oil and gas to the surface, has traditionally been disposed of in two ways: 1) Returned by fluid injection into the reservoir where it originated for secondary or enhanced oil recovery; or 2) Injected into underground porous rock formations which do not produce oil or gas, and sealed above and below by unbroken, impermeable strata.
The sealing of saltwater into wells has proven not only to be a time-consuming and expensive process, it is also a waste of an increasingly precious resource. In Nothern Canada and Alberta, where oil fields are in remote locations, accommodating and feeding workers is an important task. Fresh water is not only essential to workers, it is also used in numerous steam-injection processes that help to remove the oil from porous rock and sand. Thanks to Saltworks Technologies, a Vancouver-based firm, changing saltwater to fresh is now easy and inexpensive.
Saltworks was co-founded by Ben Sparrow and Joshua Zoshi. They spearheaded their patented Thermo-Ionic technology in order to make fresh water more accessible in a world where, according to UN statistics, only 2.5% of the water is drinkable. What makes this technology so refreshing is that it is essentially self-sustaining. Run by renewable sources such as sun and waste heat, their low-enery, low-pressure process works by “first evaporating saltwater to air to create a hyper-salty solution which holds energy relative to the original salt water. Evaporation is achieved in a modified cooling tower or spray pond by harnessing low-grade heat from renewable sources such as the sun or waste heat rejected by an industrial process.” The hypersaline solution is then fed into Saltworks’ desalting device, where “the potential energy from the difference in their concentrations is used to drive salt ions from a third desalination product stream.”
Another cost-oriented benefit to this energy-efficient technology is that it primarily uses plastic equipment over the expesive and cumbersome steel used in other de-salination methods. Additionally, the Saltworks technique is able to filter out more water than other technologies, and can produce solid salt as a byproduct.
Advantages specifically to the oil industry have been numerous. Malcolm Man, Saltworks’ media correspondant, describes the low cost technology that “produces fresh water and solid salt for zero liquid discharge water treatment” as operating at near ambient temperature and pressure. This means that in order to use this technology, no ticketed steam operators are required. In an industry where a consistent lack of experienced workers is a growing problem, this is very beneficial.
Man also points out that “The automated Saltmaker is built primarily out of plastics and is robust such that it can treat produced water.” This means that traditionally hard-to-treat water such as brine can be easily cleaned using this technology. Water waste and brine, and what to do with them, has been a problem which has plagued the oil industry for some time now.
Since its inception, Saltworks has managed to create significant partnerships with two industrial heavy hitters: Teck Resources Ltd. and Cenovus Energy Inc. In May of last year, Cenovus invested $6.3MM into two Canadian startups via its Environmental Opportunity Fund (EOF). Of that, $2.5MM went to Saltworks Technologies Inc and has been put towards leading innovation for this tecnology in the oil industry. Accoring to Cenovus, the “potential applications for Saltworks’ technology include processing water for industry, as well as producing drinking water for communities and irrigation water for agriculture.”
“Water is a precious resource and its availability is a critical issue around the world,” said Judy Fairburn, Executive Vice-President of Environment and Strategic Planning at Cenovus. “The ability to convert saline water into usable fresh water could change how we use water in our operations and provide communities with sustainable, safe sources of water.” For an oil company, having this technology on-site could not only allow “green” bragging rights, but could also reduce the environmental effects of oil camps and fields.
Saltworks Technologies is providing a new, renewable way to get fresh water to those who need it most. Not only does it have the potential to help with water issues that have surfaced in Northern Canada and Alberta, but to help provide a new source of water for people around the world. As fresh water becomes a scarce commodity, the innovations of Saltworks Technologies will have an even grater effect on the planet.