Technology

A new way of oil refining

 By Michelle Leslie

The Great Depression of the 1930s saw the rise of a grass roots refinery in Saskatchewan, Canada, when a group of farmers developed The Co-op Refinery. On a mission to fuel Western Canada, the refinery which operates north-east of Regina, is capable of producing over 100,000 barrels of oil per day. That amount of oil production requires a tremendous amount of water; 7,000 liters or 1,600 gallons per minute to be exact. In order to help preserve this precious resource, the refinery partnered with GE to create a ‘membrane with brains’, a cutting edge water-recycling system. This groundbreaking solution and a first of its kind, recycles every drop of water, creating a permanent solution to a potential water problem and closing the cycle on wastewater in oil production…

(Cover photo by www.ediweekly.com)

The Great Depression of the 1930s saw the rise of a grassroots refinery in Saskatchewan, Canada, when a group of farmers developed The Co-op Refinery.

As Canada’s second largest oil producer, Saskatchewan’s oil industry is a main supplier of jobs, revenue and oil exports. The majority of the oil produced in the province is exported to customers in the United States. The Co-Op Refinery, which employs approximately 1,000 people, is headquartered in the city of Regina.

When the refinery first started its operations, it had the capacity to produce 500 barrels of oil per day. On a mission to fuel Western Canada revenues, the refinery expanded its production capacity. Today, the refinery is capable of producing over 100,000 barrels of oil per day.

Oil refining is a water intensive process, particularly when refining heavy oil where the production of steam is needed to heat pipes in order to keep heavy oil flowing. Steam is also required to upgrade the oil and to spin turbines for pumps and compressors. The other big use of water is in cooling towers and in the removal of contaminants, such as salts and ammonia.

The production expansion meant a huge increase in water uptake. In fact, in order to produce such large volumes of oil, tremendous amounts of water were required—more than 7,000 liters or 1,600 gallons per minute to be exact, placing a huge strain on water supplies in the province. Southern Saskatchewan is a semi-arid region, meaning water isn’t plentiful, and drought conditions are not uncommon.

The Co-op Refinery Complex (CRC) is one of Canada's largest and productive refineries

“When we started our last expansion we had a situation where we needed more water. Saskatchewan is a semi-arid climate and we don’t have a lot of water,” said Gil Le Dressay, Vice-President, Refinery Operations, Federated Co-Operatives Limited. “We needed more water and we were close to our limit in water withdrawals from the aquifer so we had to take water from the city water system. It wasn’t a long-term solution,” he states.

The global dependence on water cannot go unnoticed. The UN World Water Development Report 2016, entitled Water and Jobs reported that “Three out of four jobs worldwide are water-dependent. In fact, water shortages and lack of access may limit economic growth in the years to come.”

According to published findings by the United Nations, the energy sector is responsible for approximately 15 percent of global water withdrawals, making the reduction, reuse and mitigation of water a top priority. This fact was not lost on the team at the Co-Op Refinery. To help preserve this precious resource, the refinery partnered with GE to create a ‘membrane with brains,’ a cutting edge water-recycling system and the first of its kind.

“The first stage is known as the oil-water separation process where heavier sediment sinks and lighter elements float,” said Paul Schuler, Executive-Sales, GE Power, Water & Process Technologies. “In the second stage, we dissolve nitrogen and smaller particles. Then the water moves into a membrane bioreactor (microfiltration) which breaks down biodegradable hydrocarbons and ammonia,” he says.

Wastewater Improvement Project (Imagine by www.gereports.ca)

The filters, about the size of a pore on your skin, resemble hanging spaghetti. As the solution moves through, the solids cling to the outside and the clean water moves through on the inside. This biological process requires replicating the right natural conditions so that micro-organisms or naturally occurring bugs that feed off of hydrocarbons will go to work, eating toxins out of the wastewater.

This groundbreaking solution to water consumption recycles almost every drop of water, recovering over 1,100 gallons of water per minute, reducing the water footprint on local aquifers, eliminating water discharge and leaving water for over 3,000 households. “The water is recycled for industry. Heavy oil produces the dirtiest oil out of a refinery. To be able to break it down and clean up the water means taking away one of the biggest waste streams that is difficult to manage,” reported Le Dressay.

Closing the loop has also lowered emissions. The ponds on the refinery grounds, full of hydrocarbons and sulfur have been cleaned. The microfiltration process allows for recovered oil to be recycled into the system thereby reducing emissions. “The refinery is a model of sustainability and that is the future,” states Paul Schuler. “It’s a model of what refineries should be doing globally.”

For Le Dressay, the solution was critical to meeting the organization’s goals of social responsibility and sustainability. “As we move forward and water becomes more and more precious and as our society continues to grow, industry has to find a way to responsibly use water and to reuse it as much as you can,” he says. “It’s very important to do everything we can as industry to not overuse water and to leave it for others.”

about the author
Michelle Leslie
Alberta, Toronto and now Ottawa. Meteorologist, Journalist & Munk School Of Global Affairs Fellow.