Attacking Oil

November 25, 2009 | 1 Comment

In laboratory experiments to be reported in the journal Chemosphere, University of Utah engineer and Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering Andy Hong demonstrated that “pressure-assisted ozonation and sand filtration” effectively removes oil droplets dispersed in water, indicating it could be used to prevent oil sheen from wastewater discharged into coastal waters.

Andy Hong and the Microbubble Device. Click image for more info.

Andy Hong and the Microbubble Device. Click image for more info.

First, the focus on cleanups:

Hong says the method – for which patents are pending – also could be used to clean a variety of pollutants in water and even soil, including:

  • So-called “produced water” from oil and gas drilling sites on land. Such oily water normally is re-injected underground. “If we have technology to clean it, it could be put into beneficial uses, such as irrigation, especially in arid regions where oil and gas tend to be produced,” says Hong.
  • Water from mining of tar sands and oil shale.
  • Groundwater contaminated by MTBE, a gasoline additive that reduces harmful vehicle emissions but pollutes water due to leaking underground gasoline storage tanks.
  • “Emerging contaminants,” such as wastewater polluted with medications and personal care products.
  • Soil contaminated with polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs, from electrical transformers) or polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs, from fuel burning). Water and contaminated soil would be mixed into slurry, and then treated with the new method.
  • Heavy metals in soil. Instead of ozone, air and metal-grabbing chelating agents would be pressurized with a slurry of the contaminated material.
  • Refinery wastewater and oil spills at refineries or on waterways. The spill could be vacuumed, and then treated with the new method on-site or on a barge.

Hong says, “We are not trying to treat the entire hydrocarbon [oil] content in the water – to turn it into carbon dioxide and water – but we are converting it into a form that can be retained by sand filtration, which is a conventional and economical process.”

Most of the dispersed oil droplets – which float on water to cause a sheen – are turned into acids and chemicals known as aldehydes and ketones, bit worthwhile chemicals. Most of those substances, in turn, help the remaining oil droplets clump together so they can be removed by conventional sand filtration.

As well as cleanup, Hong and his team are on to something.  Perhaps the chemistry and the process he’s invented has a role in oil recovery as well.

But, in his study, Hong showed the new method not only removes oil sheen, but also leaves the treated water so that any remaining acids, aldehydes and ketones are more vulnerable to being biodegraded by pollution-eating microbes.  Once the process is used the products are somewhat vulnerable.  Great for cleanup and it could be great for other processes as well.

Hong has developed an inexpensive new method to process oil widely dispersed in water by repeatedly pressurizing and depressurizing ozone gas, creating microscopic bubbles that attack the oil so it can be removed by sand filters.

Hong says his method uses two existing technologies – ozone aeration and sand filtration – and adds a big change to the former. Instead of just bubbling ozone through polluted water, Hong uses repeated cycles of pressurization of ozone and dirty water so the ozone saturates the water, followed by depressurization so the ozone expands into numerous microbubbles in the polluted water, similar to the way a carbonated beverage foams and overflows if opened quickly.

The tiny bubbles provide much more surface area – compared with larger bubbles from normal ozone aeration – for the oxygen in ozone to react chemically with oil. Hong says pollutants tend to accumulate on the bubbles because they are not very water-soluble. The ozone in the bubble attacks certain pollutants because it is a strong oxidant. The reactions convert most of the dispersed oil droplets – which float on water to cause sheen – into the acids and chemicals, which in turn, help the remaining oil droplets clump together so they can be removed by conventional sand filtration.

Professor Hong conducted his experiments using a tabletop chemical reactor that contained about a quart of oily water made by mixing deionized water with crude oil from the Rangely oil field in northwestern Colorado.

For producing ozone Hong’s team passes dry air through a high-voltage field, converting oxygen gas, which has two oxygen atoms, into ozone. The ozone was pressurized to 10 times atmospheric pressure, about 150 pounds per square inch.  Hong found oily water was cleaned most effectively by pressurizing and depressurizing it with ozone gas 10 times, then filtering it through sand, then putting the water through 20 more pressurized ozone cycles, and then filtering it again through sand. That was at flow rates of 10 to 20 liters per minute [about 2.6 to 5.3 U.S. gallons per minute] in his laboratory apparatus.

Hong tested how well the ozonation worked by measuring chemical and biological oxygen demands of treated water samples. Both indirectly measure organic contents in the water. Hong also used mass spectrometry to identify what contaminants remained in the water.  He found that his most effective procedure removed 99 percent of the turbidity from the “produced water” – leaving it almost as clear as drinking water – and removed 83 percent of the oil, converting the rest to dissolved organic acids removable by biodegradation.

Successful, Hong now plans for larger-scale pilot tests. “It is economical and it can be scaled up,” he says.

One such test will be done in Wuxi, China, where a prototype desk-sized device capable of treating 200 liters [53 U.S. gallons] at a time will be tested at three to five polluted industrial sites that the government vacated for redevelopment.

The University of Utah Research Foundation has entered into options to license the technology to Miracotech, Inc., of Albany, Calif., and 7Rev, L.P., a Salt Lake City venture capital group, so the companies can bring the technology to market.

With a cleanup market in place and demand good Hong and the new licensees are well set.  There is much more opportunity here than first meets the eye, flowing from old oil reserves might be a much larger market f the process can really scale up to production levels.

Professor Hong has hit a home run that may go around more than once.  It has to really cheer up those of us who like a clean planet as well as realistic environmentalists.


1 Comment so far

  1. Surrogate Mother on December 2, 2010 2:46 PM

    oil spills can really mess up the environment, i hope we can find a very good solution to control oil spills ;-:

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