An absolute nemesis for both the environmentalist and the oil producer is oil in sand.  Whether its oil soaking into the beach or billions of barrels in sand reservoirs, getting oil out of sand is a very big idea.  Now Penn State researchers seem to have a new and very workable solution.

A new, more environmentally friendly method of separating oil from tar sands has been developed by a team of Penn State researchers which utilizes ionic liquids to separate the heavy viscous oil from sand, also is capable of cleaning oil spills from beaches and separating oil from drill cuttings, the solid particles that must be removed from drilling fluids in oil and gas wells. It might also play a role in reservoir hydraulic fracturing.

A lab beaker with ionic liquid removing oil from sand at Penn State. Click image for the largest view.

First up, the tar sands, aka bituminous sands or oil sands, which represent approximately two-thirds of the world’s estimated oil reserves. Canada is the world’s major producer of unconventional petroleum from the Alberta tar sands, The U.S. imports more than 1 million barrels of oil per day from Canada.  There is also a huge reserve in Venezuela awaiting some form of responsible leadership. There is more in Utah as well.

The production of oil from tar sands can cause environmental damage. Part of the damage comes from the storage of contaminated wastewater from the separation process in large open-air ponds. Wastewater from the ponds can seep into groundwater and pollute lakes and rivers.  While intensely monitored, accidents are bound to happen.  A new method freeing up the freshwater concern can be a major improvement.

The process can also be used to extract oil and tar from beach sand after oil spills. Unlike other methods of cleanup, Penn State’s new process completely removes the hydrocarbons, and the cleaned sand can be returned to the beach instead of being landfill, which only partly solves the problem, with the astronomical costs and lost revenues.

In an experiment using sand polluted by the recent BP oil spill, the team was able to separate hydrocarbons from the sand within seconds. A small amount of water was used to clean the remaining ionic liquids from the sand, but that water was also recovered.

Penn State researcher Aron Lupinsky said, “It was so clean you could toss it back on the beach. Plus, the only extra energy you need is enough to stir the mixture.”

Paul Painter, professor of polymer science in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering at Penn State, and the team have spent the past 18 months developing a technique that uses ionic liquids (salt in a liquid state) to facilitate separating the oil out of sand.

The separation takes place at room temperature without the generation of waste process water. “Essentially, all of the bitumen is recovered in a very clean form, without any contamination from the ionic liquids,” Painter explained.

Because the bitumen, solvents and sand/clay mixture separate into three distinct phases, each can be removed separately, the solvent can then be reused the oil sent to market and the water recycled.

The researchers work with a group of ionic liquids based on 1-alkyl-3-methylimidazolium cations, a positively charged material with high chemical and thermal stability, a low degree of flammability, and almost negligible vapor pressure, attributes that make recovering the ionic liquid relatively simple. The team has built a functioning bench top model system and is in the process of reducing their discovery to practice for patenting.

Dr. Painter and the team have a page up with an extensive explanation, which isn’t at all hard to follow, plus there are more photographs.  There is also a video with Aron Lupinsky describing the new cleaning method and shows the method at work in a lab beaker.

This will likely scale up.  As its just a simple (large) tank phase change separation there isn’t anything obvious to make for scale up problems other than the start up price of the ionic liquid.

We’ll be keeping an eye on this.  Last year saw every idea on earth floated during the BP gulf floor blowout.  There’s just a huge supply of petroleum out there to use, and there is a lot of comfort in knowing a cleanup isn’t just a problem with difficult and long lasting problems – it can be a deep cleaning result when an accident happens.  But having the method at hand is going to change perspectives – getting to a spill quickly will mean the lighter oil and volatiles can be caught and sold as well.  Times change.

GO Penn State!


3 Comments so far

  1. Rich Webb on February 17, 2012 4:12 PM


  2. Branden Burruss on November 7, 2012 6:18 AM

    oil spills are always bad for the environment, we should avoid them as much as possible.

  3. Kris McKenis on March 18, 2013 8:44 AM

    Oil is used in everything i love it

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