A new Los Alamos tech could give us clean energy and drinkable water

New system targets water used in oil and gas extraction

June 22, 2024

Science Water

Every day, more than 50 billion barrels of water are generated during oil and gas extraction from more than 900,000 wells. The makeup of this byproduct water — also referred to as “produced” water — is highly variable: Each stream of water contains a unique salinity and mix of impurities, including organics, heavy metals, particulates and radionuclides. But what if we could turn that produced water into clean, drinkable water? And what if we could do it with a system that actually removes most of the carbon uses, offering a carbon-neutral solution?

During oil or natural-gas extraction, water is combined with other chemicals and injected into the ground to break up the rock and release oil or gas. The liquid mixture of water, chemicals and oil or gas is brought up in a production well, after which the oil is separated out. That leaves the produced water, which is often brackish or high in salinity.

To be clear, some produced water already gets treated and reused. But in recent years, more than 90% of produced water generated globally was disposed of as waste. Produced water currently gets injected back into the ground, a process that may contribute to seismic activity and groundwater pollution.

A new technology developed by Los Alamos National Laboratory called supercritical water desalinization and oxidation can turn this challenge into an opportunity. First, a few definitions: “Supercritical” means that the water is taken to a temperature and pressure point where it is no longer in a distinct liquid or gas phase. “Desalination” refers to the removal of salt from the water such that it can be safe for drinking or other use. And “oxidation” is the process in which oxygen is used for the combustion of hydrocarbons. 

Read the full column in the Santa Fe New Mexican.