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Freeze! One man instantly solves the world’s dirtiest water problem

May 26, 2016
Ahilan Raman, director and lone ranger at Australian company Clean Energy and Water Technologies, answered the GE-Statoil Open Innovation Challenge to reduce freshwater use in shale oil development, because he was driven to “contribute to a solution”. His deepest held belief is that “Preserving nature is very important.” And his ice-cold solution in this case came to him in a flash: “It was an instant response because I have long experience in solving such problems.”Hydraulic fracking uses up to 37 million litres of fresh water per well. Injected as steam under high pressure, along with chemical additives, it disrupts the shale formations and releases the oil and gas trapped within. That’s thirsty work, and unsustainable, given that the resulting effluent—returned water and water released from underground—is very hard to recycle and poses a hazard in the environment. Raman, a chemical engineer, says that the produced water from Queensland’s coal-seam-gas wells is simple compared to the effluent from US shale-gas fields, which is not only more toxic but “is some of the most complex effluent that the industrial world has seen”.

Statoil, the Norway-based multinational that partnered with GE in posing the challenge and rewarding the successful submissions, runs large shale-gas operations in North America. The companies’ combined crowdsourcing quest for innovations in water saving, attracted over 100 submissions and Elisabeth Birkeland Kvalheim, chief technology officer at Statoil ASA said, “We need to continue to invent new, commercial technologies and models to increase margins, and at the same time reduce our carbon footprint. We know that we cannot do this alone—that is why our partnership with GE is also about triggering broader collaboration within and beyond our industry.”

“The advantage to my solutions is that I can commercialise to a large industrial scale,” says Ahilan Raman, director of Melbourne-based Clean Energy and Water Technologies, and a winner of the GE-Statoil Open Innovation Challenge.

Raman’s elegant fix for the clean-water-in, toxic-water-out conundrum is expected to save a significant proportion of the 10%-30% of production costs incurred by water-management in shale-oil mining, largely by reducing water transportation—in the US much of the water used in fracking has to be trucked to well sites. It also helps the environment by reducing the carbon released by such water convoys, by minimising spoilage of valuable freshwater resources and by reducing the risks in managing containment ponds and effluent discharge.

In fact, Raman’s solution results in zero effluent—just super-clean (cleaner than drinking standard) water, and commercially valuable salt.

The integrated-technology works like this: After oil, grease, and other organic components have been removed from the  produced water, and it has undergone microfiltration, the remaining intensely salty effluent is chilled to its eutectic point—the temperature at which it freezes. Shale oil and gas effluent is some 10 times saltier than seawater, and, at various temperatures below -21oC, the various salts including sodium chloride separate from the water in the form of ice crystals. They are easily separated from the the water ice, leaving shale-oil companies with water of the high grade they need for further fracking, as well as salt for sale.

Raman was one of four winners of the challenge (the other successful candidates are US based) announced in February this year. His solution earned him US$25,000 prize money and he recently agreed with Statoil to demonstrate his solution at pilot scale. “I said it will take at least half a million dollars to demonstrate on the scale they want. They said OK. I’m trying to do it in a university or in a private industrial estate,” says Raman.

Four winners were selected, based on the degree of innovation, technical feasibility and commercial viability of their proposals.

“The water challenge is a great example of how Statoil and GE, together with the winners, can fast track promising solutions to the market and take an active role in transforming the future of the oil and gas industry,” says Birkeland Kvalheim.

Raman is also working on another, elegant, circular solution to the world’s carbon dilemma, which anticipates a time when the world’s natural-gas reserves are running low. His proposition is to recycle CO2 into natural gas: “All you have to do is capture the  CO2 and convert it into natural gas again. The gas produced is purer than natural gas. Natural gas has to be cleaned up before using it, but because this gas is synthetic, it requires no cleaning at all.”

He says his process will require significant capital investment: “You need a lot of equipment to process the CO2, but at the end of the day your cost is going to be very economical because you won’t have to produce natural gas anymore.” Raman has had agreement from another multinational fuel producer that his plan is viable, and he is currently in discussions with with various agencies that are seeking solutions to their carbon emission problems.

Carbon cannot be avoided. That’s why I feel that carbon recycling is going to be the solution.

A sole operator, Melbourne-based Raman hires people he needs to help test and commercialise solutions to problems faced by Fortune 500 companies. He subscribes to organisations specialising in innovation challenges and says he receives notice of up to three-dozen challenges a week. “I choose the ones I will work on,” he says. The six or seven projects he currently has at different stages of development cover a huge range of chemical-related fields . “I’m doing drug synthesis for anti-cancer drugs, and also a new application—a treatment for cancer using DNA. And I recently solved another problem for an American food company to produce a moisture barrier coating for food packages using nanotechnology.”

His solutions come, says Raman, “from intuition” informed by his understanding of processes. But he says his real talent is being able to commercialise and scale his solutions. “I have nearly 35 years’ experience with how to commercialise processes—to translate from the lab to industrial scale—that is my strength.”

He envisages that his shale-water-recycling solution will be fully automated based on a continuous process that can be trailer mounted and moved from gas well to gas well. “Then you can process water at the site, reuse it at the site, recycle it and the whole plant can move on to another site.” The ultimate cost of eutectic freeze crystallisation (EFC) will, he says, probably come in at less than 10 cents per cubic metre depending on the resale value of the salt which is readily used by chemical industries. It will be much cheaper than  the cost of reverse-osmosis desalination, which is almost a dollar per cubic metre.

For Raman, winning the GE-Statoil Innovation Challenge means “recognition for my solution”. It served his “passion to preserve nature”. And the fact “that the challenge involved two of the top companies in the world in oil and gas,” encourages him in his quest to benefit the environment through his work: “It shows that they are genuinely looking for a solution to the issues.”