A process originally developed for algae harvesting shows promise as a solution for treating flowback water from hydraulic fracturing operations.
Los Angeles-based technology company OriginOil has developed products to enable the industrial scale harvesting of algae into renewable crude oil that is compatible with the current worldwide petroleum refining infrastructure.
In recent third party testing, OriginOil's Solids Out of Solution System--powered by its Single Step Extraction technology, a solids separation and dewatering process--removed 98 percent of hydrocarbons from a sample of West Texas oil well flowback water in the first stage alone. The flowback water was tested in the lab – OriginOil is now getting out into the field to run commercial programs.
"We have only tested our process on frac flowback from oil wells and have yet to test on frac fluid from gas wells," said OriginOil CEO Riggs Eckelberry, but said he believes OriginOil's technology can help with removing any organic material.
The company is looking to pursue projects in the Marcellus and other shale plays, said Eckelberry, who sees no technical reason the 98 percent number can't be sustained.
The company recently announced an agreement with Los Angeles-based Clean Water Technology to manufacture the clean-up systems for the commercial rollout of OriginOil's oil and gas water cleanup system.
OriginOil will work with California-based engineering company PACE Engineering to engineer the first commercial units, which will be capable of processing up to one barrel per minute of petroleum-contaminated flowback water from the hydraulic fracturing process, or up to 60,000 gallons per day.
OriginOil has also signed a memorandum of understanding with PACE to collaborate with oil field operators in Texas and elsewhere to enhance petroleum recovery and water cleaning for re-use at well sites.
The Solids Out of Solution Process
The Single Step Extraction tubes use electrical pulses that neutralize the electric charge of the suspended or colloidal charges in the water, allowing them to come out of the solution.
Eckelberry compares the extraction process to making a pot of coffee, but then wanting to pull the coffee grounds back out.
"In this step, we are making the coffee particles stick to each other so they become visible in the water."
In the second concentration stage, similar pulses are used to push the solids to the surface using a bubble floatation method, allowing them to be raked off and further processed. The effluent is sent for additional purification to groundwater quality.
"The water below is now relatively clear and can be reused immediately (in the case of algae production) or can be sent to re-injection wells or further processed to ground water quality for re-use (as in the case of oil and gas water cleanup)," said Eckelberry.
In the coffee process, this would be the equivalent of pushing all the coffee solids to the surface, being left with clear water below.
It's chemical-free, very low-energy, and can be operated in a continuous flow mode, Eckelberry said.
"Now what you have coming out of this is a sludge or concentrate that is still 80-90 percent water. But now it's economical to use centrifuges and filters to remove the rest of the water, if desired," he added,
The end product, for algae production, is a biocrude that is functionally identical to light sweet crude oil.
"Algae is an aquatic species, so great quantities of water are used," said Eckelberry. "However, this water can be waste water, or brackish, or ocean water. So there isn't a comparison with frack water, which must be fresh."
Eckelberry said the company is positioned as the first in the multi-stage process of oil and gas water treatment, estimating that the addressable market for its process stage of the producing water market is in the range of $250 to $500 million.
The company's technology efficiently dewaters and breaks down algae for its useful products, overcoming one of the greatest challenges in making algae into a viable replacement for petroleum. OriginOil has already introduced three proprietary products and technologies into the market and has booked revenues with more than $1 million in backlog orders.
A Promising Technology
OriginOil had initially targeted the end to end process, both growth and harvesting, for the algae industry. In late 2008, Nicholas Eckelberry, brother of OriginOil CEO Riggs Eckelberry, invented the process now known as Single Step Extraction. The two realized they had a promising technology as there are few harvesting solutions versus many growth technologies.
Backed by the OriginOil R&D team, the Eckelberrys spent a year and a half assembling the process' basic design when Australia-based MBD Technology approached them. MBD was funded to make a lot of algae, and they had realized they needed a scalable way to remove algae from water and ruptured for downstream use.
MBD "basically persuaded us to go into the field with them," said Riggs Eckelberry.
OriginOil began working with MBD in June 2010. By December 2010, MBD had pronounced OriginOil's technology a success, and in early 2011, they ordered progressively larger systems, which OriginOil have been delivering since then.
"With MBD, we have attained a scale appropriate to modular algae production," said Riggs Eckelberry. "In other words, you're not going to have a one giant algae pond, you'll have a series of smaller ones, and our harvesters (at 100K gallons/day) are appropriately sized to service one typical pond or module."
The algae industry's major customers include the nutritional and pharmaceutical industries, which typically have high priced products, and so there hasn’t been the drive to really cut and operating costs, said Eckelberry.
"With the new huge, lower-cost markets for fuel and chemicals, you have to have low-cost production, and if it's for fuel, you can't expend more energy than you get out of it," said Eckelberry. "This really brings to the forefront the biggest challenge in algae: the fact that it lives in a tremendous amount of water – a water-algae ratio as great as 1,000 to 1."
For this reason, a new technology was needed to get the algae out of the water economically, at large scale and with very low energy expense. Also, the process had to be chemical-free so as to enable re-use of the water, Eckelberry said. OriginOil's process satisfies all these requirements.
Researchers at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) found that 21 billion gallons of algal oil, equal to the 2022 advanced biofuels goal set out by the Energy Independence and Security Act, can be produced with American-grown algae. That adds up to 17 percent of the oil the nation imports for transportation. This could happen by 2022, helping the United States become more energy-independent, said Eckelberry.
Algae converts at a very high efficiency into biocrude, as it has lots of caloric value and happens to have the same molecular structure as petroleum, said Eckelberry. The Obama administration supports the use of algae as a biofuel, and the U.S. Navy has pushed for biofuels use, including algae. However, opposition exists in U.S. Congress, so the support the U.S. government can bring is probably limited at present, said Eckelberry.
"Algae is right now in better shape in Australia than in the U.S. because resource producers (miners etc.) can take a direct credit against their new carbon tax by investing in algae and other carbon capture technologies," said Eckelberry. "This is driving a boom of adoption in 'Algstralia.'"
The aviation industry supports greater use of biofuels in general, said Eckelberry. Algae fits into a blended biofuels program by brining its high caloric value and petroleum profile.
"The outlook for algae in the short-term is that key producers need to keep building up scale. That's happening with leading companies like Sapphire and Solazyme."
Water Treatment an Issue for Hydraulic Fracturing
The use and treatment of water in hydraulic fracturing operations has become a significant issue facing shale development in the United States due to the significant amount of water used in hydraulic fracturing and concerns over its impact on local water supplies.
With water usage growing, so is the market for treatment solutions of produced water. According to Lux Research, the hydraulic fracturing water market is expected to increase to $9 billion in 2020 as hydraulic fracturing activity grows outside the United States.
PACE estimated that the cost to remediate frac water to class B purity, or groundwater grade, is approximately 21 cents to 26 cents a gallon, and for disposal in deep wells, 11 cents per gallon. OriginOil's process, in conjunction with the PACE system, is estimated to cost about 7 cents per gallon.
Produced water is generated from most of the approximately 1 million producing oil and gas well in the United States. More than 98 percent of produced water from onshore wells is injected underground. The produced water in many cases contains hydrocarbons in an emulsion and the recovery of that hydrocarbon presents opportunity to increase production.