This is pretty amazing. Researchers at Penn State have developed a solvent that quickly and cleanly removes bitumen from oil sands. Watch the video, it’s sort of the ShamWow of oil production:
The oil floats to the top, with the solvent suspended beneath it and the sand sinking to the bottom. In the video, researcher Aron Lupinsky says the process leaves the sand completely clean – without a single trace of hydrocarbons. And the solvent can then be reused.
“This allows us to get to these oil reserves without destroying the environment,” Lupinsky says.
It goes without saying that this new solvent, if brought to scale, could be a game-changer.
SolveClimate News reported in January on the effort to find a solvent that would make oil sands extraction less energy intensive.
Tar sands oil is extracted either through strip mining or in situ processing, where the oil is extracted underground before being pumped to the surface. Both process use steam, which requires tremendous amounts of water and energy. This contributes to the tar sands’ larger carbon footprint, and requires massive, toxic tailing ponds that have been killing ducks and polluting nearby waterways.
Currently, according to the SolveClimate article, the Canadian government doesn’t regulate emissions from oil sands productions, so producers would have no incentive to use the solvent unless it were cheaper than older technologies. We don’t know what’s in the stuff or how much it costs, so it’s not possible to say at this point whether there will be a net environmental benefit, or whether it will be used at all.
And even if a less carbon-intensive extraction method is found, there are still environmental concerns around the transportation of the oil, and the greenhouse gas emissions from burning it.
Still, it doesn’t take much imagination to see how a cost-effective, environmentally benign way to extract oil from tar sands could change the energy picture.