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Home > Natural Resources > Water Strategies to Preserve Natural Resource Supplies and Quality

From Sludge Water in the Oil Field to Potable Fresh Water

Oil production uses vast amounts of fresh water and brings to surface vast amounts of highly contaminated water. Altela provides a filtraton solution.

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Excavating oil and gas has a little-known byproduct that costs the energy industry billions of dollars annually in removal-- sludge water.

New Mexico based Altela has developed a hydrothermal system that aims to turn the smelly groundwater extracted in oil or gas production into clean drinking water.

Called "clean technology", it can produce potable water with less energy than other desalinization methods, such as carbon filtration, without the use of pumps.

The technology is also more energy efficient than hiring 18-wheel trucks to port the water away for burial in specialized wells, according to company CEO Ned Godshall.

So-called produced water is the oil and gas industry's dirty big secret. In the United States, an average of 9 out of every 10 gallons of liquid extracted in oil or gas production is salty, mineralized water that's thought to be between 30 million and 60 million years old.

The scientific group Produced Water Society monitors use of this naturally polluted water. Companies separate the water from oil, and treat the water before it can be reused, or otherwise truck it away for disposal "down hole" because it typically contains oil and metals that can be harmful to the environment.

Offshore oil rigs, for example, must ensure that they dilute produced water to 29 parts per million, or something like the equivalent of an eyedropper of oil (produced water) in a five-gallon bucket, before it can put it back into the Gulf of Mexico. Anything higher will cause a sheen on the ocean.

For that reason, the energy industry must invest in equipment like reverse osmosis systems to clean the water. Reverse osmosis separates silt or salt from freshwater by moving it through a semipermeable membrane with applied pressure, but it can be expensive because of the energy needed to produce large amounts of pressure. At land excavation sites, energy companies will also spend as much as $63 a barrel to truck away the water for removal, according to Altela's estimations.

Altela unveiled its technology in March 2007, and claims it can take 90 percent of produced water and turn it into clean water.

Unlike reverse osmosis or other filtration methods, Altela's system uses virtually no energy to drive pumps or pressurized systems to clean the water. Rather, Altela uses waste energy like methane released in the industrial process to power its own thermal distillation system, Godshall said.

Altela doesn't sell or lease their system. Rather, they charge the oil company per gallon to convert produced water into reusable water. Without disclosing the per-gallon conversion fee, he said it's as much as "120 times less money than trucking away the water." And it's less environmentally damaging.

One use of the cleaned water is to give the water to local ranchers to feed cattle or green their land. The other is to reuse the water for frac jobs, short for fracturing, in which drillers use huge amounts of clean water to exert energy on a rock underground in order to release new gas and oil. The industry often takes freshwater from lakes, rivers, and streams for frac jobs, but because water is such a precious commodity, it's trying to reuse produced water several times over.

After oil and gas, Altela hopes to tackle the treatment of industrial wastewater, such as the semiconductor industry or the food and beverage business.

"The industry has huge needs to get rid of and reuse dirty water," Godshall observes.


Altela, Inc. has offices in Albuquerque and Denver.
One Technology Center
2450 Alamo Ave. SE, Suite 200
Albuquerque, New Mexico 87106
Telephone: 505.923.4140

Denver Technology Center
5350 South Roslyn Street, Suite 430
Englewood, Colorado 80111
Telephone: 303.993.1950

Edited by Carolyn Allen, owner/editor of California Green Solutions
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