Oil and water tend to separate, but they mix well enough to form stable oil-in-water emulsions in produced water from oil reservoirs to become a problem. Rice University scientists have developed a nanoparticle-based solution that reliably removes more than 99 percent of the emulsified oil that remains after other processing is done.
The Rice lab of chemical engineer Sibani Lisa Biswal made a magnetic nanoparticle compound that efficiently separates crude oil droplets from produced water that have proven difficult to remove with current methods.
The research is detailed in a paper in the Royal Society of Chemistry journal Environmental Science: Water Research & Technology.
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.
While methods exist to separate most of the oil from the production flow, engineers at Shell Global Solutions, which sponsored the project, told Biswal and her team that the last 5 percent of oil tends to remain stubbornly emulsified with little chance to be recovered.
“Injected chemicals and natural surfactants in crude oil can oftentimes chemically stabilize the oil-water interface, leading to small droplets of oil in water which are challenging to break up,” said Biswal, an associate professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering and of materials science and nanoengineering.
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