Environment

Liquid salt could help clean up tar sands

Liquid salt could help clean u...
A tar sand sample treated with the ionic liquid process(Photo: Penn State University)
A tar sand sample treated with the ionic liquid process
(Photo: Penn State University)
View 1 Image
A tar sand sample treated with the ionic liquid process(Photo: Penn State University)
1/1
A tar sand sample treated with the ionic liquid process
(Photo: Penn State University)

The United States imports approximately one million barrels of oil per day from Canada, which is about twice the amount that it gets from Saudi Arabia. A large percentage of that oil comes from tar sand deposits, in which bitumen (a tar-like form of crude oil) is found combined with sand. The tar sands – also known as oil sands – are hugely controversial, as many people state that the process used for extracting the oil from the sand is too ecologically-unfriendly. A new technique being pioneered at Penn State University, however, could drastically reduce the environmental impact of that process.

The current method of separating sand and bitumen involves adding warm water to the two, then agitating the mixture. Unfortunately, it requires a lot of water, which is diverted from nearby rivers. Once the separation process is complete, the now-polluted water is pumped into open air tailings ponds. From there, it can potentially leach its way back into the water table. There's also another risk – despite the presence of bird-scaring devices, in 2008 approximately 1,600 ducks died when they landed in one of the ponds.

Instead of warm water, the Penn State method utilizes room temperature ionic liquids (ILs), which consist of salt in a liquid state – a solvent such as toluene may also be added. When the ILs are introduced to a sand/bitumen mixture and stirred, the resulting combination settles into three distinct layers: a bottom layer of oil-free sand, a middle layer of ILs, and a top layer of bitumen. The bitumen can then be removed and refined, the ILs can be reused, and residual ILs in the sand can be removed using a relatively small amount of water (which can also be reused), after which the sand can be returned to the environment.

Not only is much less water used, but because nothing needs to be heated, there are also substantial energy savings.

The researchers state that the ionic liquids could also be used to clean up beaches devastated by oil spills. Sand could be cleaned and redeposited on the spot, supposedly containing even less hydrocarbons than it did before the spill ever occurred.

We'll be watching this one with interest ...

20 comments
Alien
it is not clear what \'salt\' this article is talking about. Common salt (NaCl) only becomes liquid at around 800 degrees C but the article talks about \"room temperature ionic liquids (ILs), which consist of salt in a liquid state\". So are they using a \'salt\' of another element? If so what \'salt\' is employed in this technique? Overall this approach seems revolutionary and I hope it can be \'scaled up\' for commercial use in Canada and indeed elsewhere. A bit more information would help.
Todd Dunning
While liberals restrict us from drilling our own oil - with deposits larger than Saudi Arabia - our president is loaning the Brazilians $2B to drill their oil, and then sell it to us. While 60,000 are out of work in the coastal drilling shutdown. Extraction from tar sands is dirty, costly and inefficient. Just like buying it from the Saudis and putting it in oil tankers. Doesn\'t make sense, does it? But then, what actually works doesn\'t matter to liberals because unicorn love will raise the winds and make windmills turn for peace and harmony.
habakak
Todd D, I fully agree with you as far as the environmentalists goes. Once gasolilne reaches $5/gallon the environment won\'t matter any more. But to suggest the US have larger deposits than Saudi Arabia (I assume you are talking of crude oil deposits) is just preposterous.
Jeff Rosati
@Todd, How will drilling your own supply help in any significant way. It will not reduce the price of oil. Oil is priced on the open market. Prices are set by GLOBAL supply and GLOBAL demand. Yes you might employ some folks. But based on the exponentially increasing energy demand from China and India alone we won\'t be able to affect market prices. You can\'t say \"This is our oil and we\'re selling it cheeper.\" because we live in a capitalist system (which is a good thing). I don\'t have an answer for a cheeper alternative. But I do know you can\'t side step the commodities markets.
biscuitcutter
The question from Alien about which salt might be liquid at room temps is intriguing. I\'m not a chemist, but it seems unlikely. On the other hand there is a metal that is liquid at room temp (mercury), so I guess there could be a salt. A potentially more important question: could this technique be used to extract oil from the shale oil formations in CO and elsewhere? It seems possible. If it could, then most likely our recoverable deposits of crude oil WOULD be greater than Saudi. I have heard that the shale oil deposits are ginormous, but with current techniques it costs more to extract it than it\'s worth. Plus it\'s probably an environmental problem.
Muraculous
Sorry Jeff, you are just plain wrong. The reason oil is up is as a direct result of traders and speculation, not supply and demand. Further, not being dependent on OPEC and other unfriendlies is a distinct political, economic and emotional advantage. The third and most important advantage of domestic production is twofold: Direct supply to the strategic reserve and domestic price models that are unhooked from speculative markets via export levies and/or regulation.
Jim Parker
While right wing loonies are hell-bent on converting our planet into a polluted CO2 pressure cooker, this technology at least offers the possibility of cleaning up some of the mess they insist God would never let happen. Meanwhile, the titanic cost in blood and money of this crude source of energy continue to drag America down into debts that we cannot repay and damage we cannot repair. But guys like Todd think that\'s just peachy because his oil stocks went up! Thanks Todd, for being what you are. I assume in 2012 you\'ll be voting for the the crookedest, craziest Republicans that wail the loudest loony tunes at the full moon. Keep watching Murdoch\'s monkeys Todd. They push all the right buttons to keep you walking the zombie walk.
Facebook User
The huge catch is that one must plow up vast regions to gather the oil sands and that involves killing the entire surface of every living creature and plant. So after you murder half of Canada you will then have a better sorting process with this new method. But what kind of lunatic is willing to bulldoze most of Canada and a great deal of the US as well? In essence we have three, right now, energy sources that are useful and can be reasonably non destructive.We have wind and wave, solar and nuclear. We should be going at it with frantic speeds trying to convert our entire way of life to these three sources. Oil and coal are dead issues.
Todd Dunning
Jim if only you could debate the topic at hand we could have an exchange of opinion. But lashing out with prerecorded \'C02\' \'blood\', \'oil stocks\' and \'Murdoch\' just reminds other readers what idiotic things they used to say in their twenties.
DaveWesely
Too bad the Pennsylvania gov wants to cut the university\'s funding 50%. Gotta love those goopers http://www.collegian.psu.edu/archive/2011/03/14/Metro_PA_budget_2011.aspx