Canadian water recovery system to clean up Alberta oil sands

Reverse Osmosis system is better for environment; eliminates softening salt costs

May 13, 2011   by Matt Powell

BURLINGTON, Ont.— Canadian clean-tech companies are stepping up to reduce the environmental contamination left by oil sands recovery in northern Alberta, particularly Burlington, Ont.-based Kontek Ecology Systems.

“Those companies out in the oil sands recognize that a lot of people believe the process is a dirty one – one that’s not environmentally friendly,” says Glenn Russell, president at Kontek. “But this shows that there are companies out there trying to make the oil recovery process as clean as possible.”

That’s one reason why Harvest Energy, a Calgary-based crude oil and natural gas-producer that generated revenues of $3.8 billion in 2010,  has sourced Kontek to manufacture a reverse osmosis waste-water treatment system to clean up its Black Gold Oil Sands project.

Kontek manufactures and distributes waste-water recovery and treatment systems. Russell says the company’s sales have grown by 400 per cent this year. It spends about 10 per cent of its profits on R&D.

The system, called Rokon Reverse Osmosis, purifies feed water and recovers processed waste water by using suspended solid filtration, ultra-filtration and micro-filtration.

The unit on the way to Harvest’s operations will also include a new technology called Cyclic Ion Exchange (CIX-RO).

The CIX technology uses a strong acid resin to soften feed-water for reverse osmosis systems. Currently, salt is often used to soften water, much like we do at home, but can involve massive costs for companies that use a lot of water.

With ion exchange water softening, a reject brine stream is generated by membranes that correspond to an exact volume of feed-water and used to regenerate another set of softeners.

Essentially, the technology eliminates the need for supplemental salts. This is more environmentally friendly because it recycles the softening brine, keeping all of the potentially harmful water within the system and cutting the massive costs of softening salts.

“Because the system involves reverse osmosis, we are recycling the waste from the reverse osmosis system, helping plants to reduce salt purchases for water softening,” says Russell.

The system is so good, Harvest has committed one-third of the processed water for cooking and drinking.

Harvest will use the system to treat utility water used to cool oil pumps. The seals on those pumps need to stay cool to avoid cracking and breaking.

Kontek is also in the midst of providing a major Canadian-based gold company with a water recovery system able to remove harmful heavy metals such as mercury.

Kontek’s Mercury Abatement system is already running at the Royal Canadian Mint, where the system removes mercury from waste water, bringing concentrations of the contaminant to less than one part per billion.

Russell says the new technology’s next step is to make its way to the oil sands where it could be used to filter out hazardous materials, especially in the ever-controversial tailing ponds.

“We’re targeting mercury especially because it is so harmful to not only humans but to the environment as well,” he says.

The oil and mining sectors represent a strong market for clean-tech companies, adds Russell.

“That’s where all the investments are going, but there are also more efforts to make those processes friendlier to the environment,” he says. “There’s a lot of waste created by the oil sands and we have the technology they need.”

Kontek is only one of the a number of Canadian clean-tech companies capitalizing on making water recovery more environmentally friendly, and it looks like it could be a huge market.

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