Researchers at Penn State University have developed a method of separating oil from tar sands that could reduce the environmental impact of the industry.
Extracting the oil requires the storage of contaminated wastewater from the separation process in large open air ponds where it can seep into groundwater and pollute lakes and rivers. In addition, the large amounts of water needed can deplete local fresh water resources.
The U.S. imports more than 1 million barrels of oil per day from Canada, about twice as much as from Saudi Arabia.
A research group at Penn State spent the past 18 months developing a technique that uses ionic liquids (salt in a liquid state) to facilitate separation of oil from the sands in a cleaner, more energy efficient manner. The separation takes place at room temperature without the generation of waste water.
“Essentially, all of the bitumen is recovered in a very clean form, without any contamination from the ionic liquids,” explained Paul Painter, the project’s lead polymer scientist. “Because the bitumen, solvents and sand/clay mixture separate into three distinct phases, each can be removed separately and the solvent can be reused.”
The process can also be used to extract oil and tar from beach sand after oil spills, such as the Exxon Valdez and Deepwater Horizon incidents. Unlike other methods of cleanup, the Penn State process completely removes the hydrocarbons, and the cleaned sand can be returned to the beach instead of being sent to landfills.
Image Credit: Penn State