Membrane innovation could be environmental gamechanger

NAIT membrane lab oil sands research

This high pressure, high temperature testing unit is one of the few membrane testing units in the world capable of working at temperatures as high as 120 degrees Celsius and pressure up to 6900 kPa. That’s important for oil sands companies who want to test new water treatment technologies for their facilities because the unit can simulate conditions in in situ oil sands operations.

The unit is impressive in size as well as function. It’s about as big as a pickup truck with storage tanks, pumps, instruments, heat exchangers, chemical treatment equipment and a vessel for testing polymeric membranes – very fine filters that separate different materials from water. 

It’s housed in the new COSIA-supported Membrane Testing Lab at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology (NAIT) where it will be used to test reverse osmosis polymeric membranes in conditions that are relevant to oil sand facilities. It will also be used for testing membranes for other industries that use water in their operations. Reverse osmosis (RO) is a process for purifying water that uses a semi-permeable membrane (synthetic lining) to filter out unwanted molecules such as salts. In fact, the most common application for RO membranes globally is producing drinking water from seawater. However, membranes for that application operate at much lower temperatures and pressures than needed in the oil sands. 

Membranes promise to be a game changer for the oil sands industry, and this innovation didn’t happen by chance. 

Currently, water produced during the Steam-Assisted Gravity Drainage (SAGD) process in the oil sands is cooled and treated in lime softeners to remove dissolved silica then through ion exchange media to reduce the hardness. If this water was run through polymeric membranes instead, it could remove both the silica and hardness along with some dissolved organic compounds to provide higher quality water enabling the use of more efficient steam generators with reduced fuel consumption, resulting in lower greenhouse gas emissions and improved water recycling rates. 

Improving sustainability

Meet Selamawit Messele, Research Associate at NAIT’s Technology Access Centre for Oil Sands Sustainability. A love for chemistry and a determination to make a difference took Messele around the world from Ethiopia to Europe before landing at the University of Alberta for post-doctoral study. Now, she focuses her attention on different aspects of water treatment technologies in NAIT’s Membrane Testing Lab.

Beyond the oil sands, this new membrane technology can  be used for other industrial applications to improve water reuse and reduce freshwater consumption. “I have a young family and supporting a sustainable environment is critical for future generations,” Messele says.

“Water scarcity is a growing concern, not only in developing countries, but also in developed countries like Canada. The knowledge we gain from using the membrane testing unit can be transferred around the world and applied to other industrial water and wastewater treatment applications.”

Messele says she is inspired by the opportunity to bridge the gap between existing science and potential solutions with work that could have an immediate impact on sustainability.

Multi-year journey with many partners

Messele will lead testing with the membrane unit in NAIT’s Membrane Technology Assessment Program (MTAP). These tests for the oil sands will use water samples from the field to discover how various membranes perform in high pressure and high temperature conditions. The research team will also explore the most efficient and environmentally friendly methods to clean the membranes, which is necessary to remove fouling and restore their performance. 

Planning for the membrane testing unit began in 2018 with initial funding from COSIA and NAIT, federal funding from Prairies Economic Development Canada (formerly Western Economic Diversification) and provincial support from Alberta Innovates and the Ministry of Jobs, Economy, and Innovation (formerly Economic Development and Trade). The multi-year journey through planning, fabrication and now testing included experts from COSIA member companies. The unit expects to welcome its first customers in fall 2022.

Work will have a real impact

“Knowing that the work we are doing is helping fight climate change is my biggest driver,” said Omar Bahgat, who was the project lead through design and fabrication of the testing unit and now works as the operations manager for the NAIT centre. “Working with COSIA and NAIT gives vendors and end users a pathway to validate their capabilities and supports  the adoption of new technologies that will decrease greenhouse gas emissions from oil sands operations,” he says.

Adopting novel membrane technology directly to field trials is a risky proposition, costing time, money, and introducing new operational concerns. The testing unit provides an intermediary step between benchtop testing and field application where these risks can be minimized. “NAIT and COSIA are at the forefront of developing something that’s never been done before,” says Bahgat.

“If successful, the application of high temperature reverse osmosis membrane technology has the potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by up to 5-10 per cent, compared to a typical SAGD baseline facility. Our work will have a real impact on reducing Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions.” 

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