UTPB's Water and Energy Institute on the move

Oct. 2—University of Texas Permian Basin's Water and Energy Institute is working steadily toward making produced water usable for irrigation and other endeavors.

Formed with the arrival of College of Engineering Dean George Nnanna, the Institute offers everything from virtual lectures to research opportunities for real-world dilemmas. The Institute will soon be located in the CEED Building.

According to the Water Environment Federation website, produced water is water that comes out of the well with the crude oil during crude oil production. Produced water contains soluble and non-soluble oil/organics, suspended solids, dissolved solids, and various chemicals used in the production process.

Seniors Raiel Amesquita, Azpen Owens, Brian Grahmann and Bibian Ogbuji are involved in the Institute's work.

Amesquita said he is currently conducting research on produced water in the oil and gas industry.

"So right now I am working in the field of data analytics and machine learning and also database management. At the moment, we are currently building models ... in order to help develop water treatment methods in the future," Amesquita said.

He said he has been with the Institute for about 18 months and has seen progress.

"But at the moment, we are currently finalizing our research in the form of an academic paper. That should be accomplished this semester," he said, adding that they will try to publish their findings.

Owens said she and Grahmann are working on wastewater management technologies for produced water.

"We are eventually going to do experimentation on umbrella evaporators, which basically use high evaporation rates to separate water from, or at least water that we can use in agricultural applications and hopefully eventually in drinking water applications, from the produced water itself. It also can remove salts from the water at the same time. Currently, we're working with membranes to work to remove that salt, but eventually we'll get up to using solar absorbers to achieve those high evaporation rates," Owens said.

Umbrella evaporators actually don't touch the water's surface, but they are a couple of millimeters above the surface.

"Basically they transfer solar energy into heat. So that way, evaporation can allow for the water droplets to evaporate so the solar absorber will be heated to high temperatures to allow for that evaporation to occur. And it will basically remove the salts from the water," Owens said.

The reason they are doing this is because the amount of produced water being produced is causing some issues in surrounding areas such as earthquakes or tremors because of the velocity of the water is being produced at is being launched into the underground wells.

"We are just trying to not only reduce that problem for the surrounding populations, but also repurpose that water since there is so much being produced," Owens said.

Grahmann said the goal is to get to a zero liquid discharge so hopefully injection and saltwater disposal wells won't be needed.

He added that this would hopefully, ultimately reduce or eliminate that source of earthquakes.

Owens said this would also reduce the risk of contamination because if there is no zero liquid discharge, they would have to intervene with the technology which could potentially contaminate the water itself.

Amesquita said the toxicity of produced water varies depending on where the sample came from.

"We get samples from all over the Permian Basin and from different formations. One of our jobs is to tell which constituents (contaminants) are coming from which areas and at what volumes, so it kind of varies depending on where you take the sample from," Amesquita said.

Owens said the research is a great step toward getting cleaner water.

"I think the undergraduate research program is a great opportunity for me in terms of research and in terms of my career towards research. I've benefited a lot from working in the program and also in terms of my belief in sustainability and clean energy. It's also very fulfilling to work in this sector," Amesquita said.

Ogbuji said the Water and Energy Institute has been working with a number of companies to address some of the constituency challenges.

"One company we're working with currently is called New Wave," Dean Nnanna said. "New Wave is looking at different opportunities for treatment of produced water, so the Institute is providing assistance for them. Also, we are working with XRI, it's a local company. They are donating a dissolved air flotation unit."

A dissolved air flotation unit is a system that utilizes micro or nano-sized bubbles to lift off particulates from the produced world and bring it to the surface where it can be skimmed off.

Nnanna said the Texas Water and Energy Institute testing laboratory will be located in the CEED Building.

"The CEED Buidling is undergoing a renovation, so in the back and here you see that there are two main spaces. This is about 1,900 square feet. This is where we are going to locate the Texas Water and Energy Institute testing laboratory. This is going to be a giant collaboration between industry and UTPB. On this back end, is the Advanced Manufacturing Center that will be run by the College of Engineering. On this side is the innovation corridor. It's a wet lab. The wet lab is going to support start-up technology companies, as well as the college," Nnanna said.

Nnanna added that they area also involved in a consortium called PEDAL, Permian Energy Development Laboratory.

"This is a consortium of UT Austin, Texas A&M, Sandia National Laboratory, National Renewable Energy Laboratory. The idea for us is to look at opportunities for energy transition, seeing how can we maintain or enhance the use of fossil fuel at the same time to be able to harvest some of the renewable natural resources available, like the wind (and) solar, decarbonization, of course, beneficial reuse of produced water. That's another area that we are tackling," Nnanna said.

He added that the Institute has about 20 industry advisory advisory board members from major oil and gas corporations that help guide research.

"It's not just the industry. We also have representatives from the U.S. Department of Energy. The Institute is also working with the Texas Produced Water Consortium. This was a Senate Bill 601 that was passed last year that the legislature have tasked the universities, headed by Texas Tech, to look at beneficiary use of produced water," Nnanna said.

He added that New Wave has set up a scholarship for students that are participating in research at the Institute.

The other component, he said, is that the Institute offers a monthly lecture series where they invite outstanding researchers in the industry to present to the community on various aspects of water treatment free of charge.

They also offer analytical testing.

"We have equipment that will be able to characterize their produced work, provide information to the industry on the composition, and they can utilize that to make informed decisions on the treatment protocol," Nnanna said.

Another major accomplishment, he said, is a paper that was published by the Society of Petroleum Engineers.

"That's a significant accomplishment from the Institute. The authors are Dr. Bibian (Ogbuji), Raiel, myself, Dr. Mark Angle at UT El Paso. So the work actually provides an empirical correlation between chlorine, sodium and total dissolved solids. So these are empirical correlations that can be used to understand the relationship between total dissolved solids and chlorine in produced water. It's a very significant information that was developed by this," Nnanna said.

He added that he thinks a solution exists for produced water.

"The challenge is the energy consumption. You have to make it affordable, which is what we're trying to do — to see is it possible to take advantage of the free energy that exists and then use the renewable energy to treat water from non-renewable source(s)," Nnanna said. "If we have to accomplish that, that will bring down the costs of treatment ... and then that can make it affordable."