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EDSON, Alberta Canada -- A water-treatment process invented in Utah has been getting a shakedown run at oil and gas fields in two states and a province of Canada in recent weeks. It may soon wind up in use on a big scale in a place where water is sometimes as precious as oil--the Middle East.
Backers of the Utah-based technology believe they've found a key to doing things "cleaner and greener" by decontaminating dirty water that comes out of oil and gas wells.
"Once we finish our process, that water's cleaner than what was in the ground originally," said Neil Richardson, C.E.O. of Purestream Technology.
If his company's system succeeds, it could provide a financial boost to Utah State University, where the concept was born. Over the years, engineers at USU's Space Dynamics Laboratory developed techniques for managing heat and conserving energy, a crucial consideration in the space program.
Now those techniques have been turned in a new direction to solve water-quality concerns in the oil and gas industry.
What is Frack-water?
The problem is a major economic factor at a huge complex of oil and gas wells in the Canadian outback near Edson, Alberta. Large tanker trucks travel the roads constantly, carrying clean water to oil and gas wells and hauling contaminated water away.
The water that comes out of the wells is strikingly dirty. In this hub of Alberta oil and gas, the dirty water is hauled away in large volumes to a central industrialized location where it's injected right back into the ground.
Some of the water is what's known as "production water," natural groundwater that comes out of wells along with oil and gas. It's typically loaded with hydrocarbons, salt and heavy metals.
At many wells, there is also a significant back-flow of so-called "frack-water." That's a brew of chemicals and water that companies deliberately pump into the ground to boost production by fracturing the rock. The process, known as "hydraulic fracturing" or "fracking," is highly controversial. Critics in the eastern U.S. blame fracking for serious groundwater contamination. Roughly a quarter to half of the frack-water comes back out of the well and has to be disposed of.
Now, Purestream Technology has what it hopes is a game-changer. The company's portable water-treatment facility can be parked at an individual oil or gas well. It separates toxic materials from the water. Only a small percentage of the original volume remains contaminated and requires disposal. More than 90 percent of the volume becomes drinking-water clean, according to Purestream, so it can be re-used or simply poured into the environment.
Using old industry technology, it costs about $5 to clean up one barrel of dirty water and turn it into distilled water. Purestream claims its technology reduces that cost to 30 cents.
"So there'd be a lot fewer (water) trucks moving out there," said Cliff Wiebe, of Poseidon Concepts and Open Range Energy, a Canadian company currently testing Purestream's technology. "And the water, if we can get it to star quality," Wiebe said, "we can discharge into a stream, or into the muskeg, even right here (at the well site)."
Energy experts have been coming to Utah from around the world to see a demonstration facility set up in North Logan by Purestream. "This industry is looking to become cleaner and greener," Richardson said.
The new advance in portable water treatment takes advantage of concepts in highly efficient use of energy, developed by J. Clair Batty, Trustee Professor Emeritus at Utah State University. "We get down on our hands and knees and gather up every little scrap of energy that might be sneaking through the fence and out the gate," Batty said.
The result, according to Purestream, is huge cost savings for the industry. Using old industry technology, it costs about five dollars "to clean up one barrel of dirty water and turn it into distilled water," Richardson said. "Our competitors' new technology, two dollars and 50 cents. Ours, 30 cents."
Environmentalists are skeptical of the oil and gas industry's water quality track record. They're also deeply concerned about fracking. "The process of injecting all these untold chemicals and fluids into our ground has some major implications for groundwater, public health and so forth," said Tim Wagner, of the Sierra Club's Utah Chapter. "We're already seeing this playing out in Pennsylvania and New York."
Some critics have even publicized videos of tap water catching fire, a phenomenon they've blamed on fracking.
In theory, Purestream's technology could make fracking practices more cost-effective for energy companies by allowing them to continually recycle and re-use their water.
Still, Wagner cautiously supports new cleanup technologies like Purestream's. "Anything we can do to lessen the impact from contaminated water," Wagner said, "obviously, that's a positive. We have to be able to address this issue."
If Purestream's system takes off and makes money, Utah State will share in the revenue. According to Batty, "That's our hope and dream and plan."
Besides Canada, the system has been deployed at oil and gas fields in North Dakota and Texas in recent weeks. Purestream is also involved in discussions with the Kuwait Oil Company aimed at using the Utah technology to clean up more than 30 million gallons of water a day.