home » Featured » Necessity driving invention

Necessity driving invention

Challenges and obstacles, some of them unexpected, rise at almost every turn of the globe that we call home. Nevertheless, if there is one thing that the human race is good at, and has had to be to survive as long as it has, it is adapting and adopting. In essence, that means innovation to workaround or overcome the challenges that we face. It could be fair to say that the oil and gas industry has a fair number of challenges to overcome, albeit some of them self created.

Up until recently, when the US Drought Monitor confirmed that while 15 per cent of the state of Oklahoma remained under extreme drought conditions, the rest of the state was showing signs of improvement. As part of the infamous,“dust bowl” region of the 1930s, a shortage of water, even if it has been attributed to the affects of La Nina, will make working difficult for the energy companies seeking to explore and extract resources from Oklahoma’s shale beds.

Water use and the potential to contaminate water has been a burden for the companies employing hydraulic fracturing (fracking) techniques and the onset or possibility of drought conditions will only heighten concerns. Reportedly, in 2011, the Oklahoma Water Resources Board has granted a little over 1500 short-term permits to the local oil and gas industry, totalling around 13,000 acre feet of water. With nearly 13,000 long-term permits granted for approximately 6.3m acre-feet of water, the oil and gas industry’s footprint is relatively small. Nonetheless, in drought conditions, the energy industry has found it challenging and expensive to get water to the well site and dispose of wastewater and has often resorting to buying water from farmers and ranchers and trucking it to the point of use. A project conceived by Devon Energy Corp in 2008 and now nearing completion should ease the company’s water use difficulties and costs.

The company has been working with the Oklahoma Corporation Commission, establishing the rules for some time and in 2011 received a permit to build a 500,000bl recycled water pond near Calumut, 10 times the size of any previous pond allowed. Devon will construct a series of pipelines that it says will cover around 36 square miles, connecting 36 well sites to the recycling pond, commencing early in 2012. “This will dramatically reduce our need to pull water from farm ponds or the North Canadian River for future development,” said Jim Heinze, Devon’s operations manager for the Anadarko Basin, in a statement. However, it is only the composition of the water in Anadarko Woodford that enables a recycling operation to be feasible, says Devon, because of the comparatively low level of salts in the water making it reusable once the solids have been removed at the recycling facility. In other areas, such as the Barnett Shale, water has a much higher salt content and has to be removed to a distillation plant for processing before it can be reused again. Often, it is the case that water from fracking operations is taken to a disposal well, a practice that reportedly has been linked to earthquakes. While Devon has not released any hard cost numbers, the company says that its water disposal costs will be lessened because of the recycling plant although the company says that a disposal well will be drilled adjacent to the recycling facility to handle excess water.

The answer is in the detail

In Alberta, toxic tailings ponds created by oil sands operations can be a dangerous and expensive challenge and knowing just how toxic a tailings pond is at any point in time is vital information to have. A team of students from the University of Calgary (U of C) and their project to use genetically-modified bacteria to monitor the level of toxins in oil sands tailings ponds earned it the opportunity to compete at the International Genetically Engineered Machines (iGEM) World Championship Jamboree at the Massachusetts recently. It is early days, but the 11 students say they have created a biosensor to detect levels of naphthenic acids (NAs), which can be toxic in certain quantities. “The 2011 U of C iGEM team has made incredible progress. In just four months, they’ve gone from the basic idea for a naphthenic acid biosensor to showing in the lab that critical parts of the system work as expected,” says Anders Nygren, one of the team’s faculty advisors and a biomedical engineer at the Schulich School of Engineering. “Having students from three different faculties has been key to this success. It has allowed the team to coordinate work ranging from molecular biology to designing electric circuits in order to cover all aspects of the final product.”

The team are aware that energy companies spend a lot of money monitoring NAs and believe that the process that they have developed is cheaper and faster than current methods. “Instead of using expensive sampling equipment, we’ve taken a bacterium that’s naturally found in the environment and hooked it up to a computer to take readings from it,” said Emily Hicks, fourth-year biomedical sciences student and iGEM team captain in a statement. “We can find out how much toxin is present within a matter of minutes.” Reportedly, the team grew bacteria in a lab and added a mini genome to detect for NAs; changes in the bacteria that occur when any NA gas is present are recorded on a computer.

There is some way to go yet but the prospect of a lower-cost process is there. Lisa Gieg, U of C assistant professor in biological sciences and faculty facilitator of the project, told reporters that the process could one day be in use in the oil sands but did stress that there was more developing and standardising work to do before the process could be used to detect NAs. Nevertheless, the project is yet another example of how technology is turning to the microbe and in this case, bacteria, to come up with a cost-saving process. At the micro- and nano-scale the answer may indeed be in the detail.



Share and Enjoy:
  • Print
  • Digg
  • del.icio.us
  • Facebook
  • Mixx
  • Google Bookmarks
  • Blogplay
  • LinkedIn
  • StumbleUpon
  • Twitter

No Responses

Leave a Reply

Make sure you enter the * required information where indicated.

You must be logged in to post a comment.