The technology being developed involves a novel method to separate oil, bitumen or tar from sand or other types of mineral matter using ionic liquids (ILs). The processes presently used to separate or extract hydrocarbons from sand are expensive and result in environmental problems associated with the disposal of waste products and contaminated water. The intellectual merit of the proposed work lies in the ability of this class of solvents to obtain a very clean separation at ambient temperatures without the generation of waste process water, thus achieving large energy savings and alleviating major environmental problems.
The science and engineering involved in applying Ionic liquids to the separation of oil from sand or other minerals is not only a novel and potentially extremely effective way of cleaning sand and olis after an environmental disaster, but also applies to other areas, such as extracting bitumen and asphalt from tar sands, separating oil from drilling muds and cleaning sand from oil well operations. Thus, there are numerous potential benefits of the proposed activity to society, mostly related to energy and the environment. The interaction between science and engineering students and business interns should also instruct both in the art of innovation and the development of new companies.
The separation and extraction of oil and bitumen from soil, sand, or other forms of mineral matter is a difficult and expensive process. The processes presently used to extract bitumen from oil sands, such as hot or warm water methods, require large amounts of energy and result in the generation of significant quantities of waste process water that is acutely toxic to aquatic life. The need for large amounts of water is one of the reasons that U.S. reserves of tar sands in the desert west (estimated to be 32 billion barrels of oil) have not been developed. Energy and environmental concerns also bedevil the separation of oil or tar from contaminated sand that is a result of conventional drilling operations (e.g., oil coated drill cuttings) or some of the newer technologies used to extract heavy oil, such as cold heavy oil production with sand (CHOPS). It has been estimated that the U.S. has reserves of about 100 billion barrels of heavy oil, but extraction with older, conventional methods, such as those based on steam injection, are inefficient and expensive. The development of a novel technology with much smaller energy requirements that will not result in any significant waste streams is therefore a potential "game-changer". NSF funded work at Penn State has resulted in the development of a novel method for separating bitumen, oil, or other hydrocarbons from sand, soil, or other particulate matter through the use of ionic liquids (ILs). The separation occurs at ambient temperatures and does not result in the generation of waste process water. Some water is used, but both water and IL are easily separated and recycled through a closed system. The process is simple and relatively inexpensive as it only involves simple mixing/separation steps and can yield significant savings (~50%) relative to current technologies. The principal goal of this project was to develop the technology for commercialization by building a demonstration unit capable of processing hundreds of pounds of material at a time and establishing operating conditions. As the project progressed, it was also found that a new class of relatively cheap "analogue" ionic liquids that are biodegradable and non-hazardous can be used in separations. The demonstration unit was built and is illustrated in the attached figure. It can be seen in operation at www.ilfuels.com/seeingisbelieving.html. Extraction of bitumen from Utah and Kentucky oil sands was been accomplished with yields in excess of 90%. Other potential uses of the technology have been identified (e.g., recovery of oil from various "waste" materials) and exploratory work with a number of companies interested in licensing the technology is underway. A technology development plan has been generated which focuses on bringing the technology to market through licensing arrangements.