Researchers of US Rice University, located in Houston of Texas, found a practical solution to separate crude oil from produced water, the university reported in a news release on Wednesday.
A video shows a sample of emulsified oil and water separating when shaken and under the influence of magnetic nanoparticles created at Rice University. Courtesy of the Biswal Lab
The Rice lab of chemical engineer Sibani Lisa Biswal made a magnetic nanoparticle compound that efficiently separates crude oil droplets from produced water which is difficult to remove with current methods.
Produced water comes from production wells along with oil. It often includes chemicals and surfactants pumped into a reservoir to push oil to the surface from tiny pores or cracks, either natural or fractured, deep underground. Under pressure and the presence of soapy surfactants, some of the oil and water form stable emulsions that cling together all the way back to the surface.
The Rice lab's experience with magnetic particles and expertise in amines, courtesy of former postdoctoral researcher and lead author Qing Wang, led it to combine techniques.
The researchers added amines to magnetic iron nanoparticles. Amines carry a positive charge that helps the nanoparticles find negatively charged oil droplets. Once they do, the nanoparticles bind the oil. Magnets are then able to pull the droplets and nanoparticles out of the solution.
The enhanced nanoparticles were tested on emulsions made in the lab with model oil as well as crude oil.
In both cases, researchers inserted nanoparticles into the emulsions, which they simply shook by hand and machine to break the oil-water bonds and create oil-nanoparticle bonds within minutes. Some of the oil floated to the top, while placing the test tube on a magnet pulled the infused nanotubes to the bottom, leaving clear water in between.
Best of all, Biswal said, the nanoparticles can be washed with a solvent and reused while the oil can be recovered. The researchers detailed six successful charge-discharge cycles of their compound and suspect it will remain effective for many more.
She said her lab is designing a flow-through reactor to process produced water in bulk and automatically recycle the nanoparticles. That would be valuable for industry and for sites like offshore oil rigs, where treated water could be returned to the ocean.