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Algae technology may help clean up wastewater

OriginOil, Inc., developer of technology to convert algae into renewable crude oil, announced that a breakthrough, chemical-free process developed for algae harvesting may also help clean up the water produced in oil well water flooding and hydraulic fracturing.

Using a lab prototype of the technology, OriginOil researchers have been able to clarify samples of flowback water from a Texas oil well carrying heavy concentrations of dissolved organics, known as frac flowback.

The petroleum industry uses large quantities of water to help fracture or “frac” rock formations deep underground to release more oil and gas. According to the energy industry resource Platts, the global hydraulic fracturing market grew 63 percent – from $19 billion in 2010 to $31 billion in 2011 – and is projected to grow a further 19 percent in 2012.

“Our research team has learned that extracting petroleum and contaminants from water is very much like extracting algae,” said Riggs Eckelberry, OriginOil CEO. “They are both very hard to remove without using chemicals and heavy machinery. Our chemical-free, high flow and low-energy process holds promise for the billions of gallons of water used daily in the oil and gas industry worldwide.”

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, for every barrel of oil produced globally, an average of three barrels of contaminated water is produced. In the U.S., the water to oil ratio (WOR) averages seven barrels of water to one of oil. In the worst cases, the WOR reaches 50 to 1.

The petroleum must be efficiently reclaimed from this water, and the water itself must be cleaned. Greentech Media reports that energy companies pay between $3.00 and $12.00 to dispose of each barrel of produced water, implying a potential world market value between $300 billion and $1 trillion per year.

“It seems that in addition to helping create the renewable energy market of the future, we may add value to a massive existing energy market,” said Eckelberry. “We will continue to investigate and report on this promising new application of our technology.”