Site logo

Petroleum Desalter Case Study: How do They Work

From the gas pump to the synthetic fertilizers that help feed the world, petroleum products facilitate almost every aspect of modern life. But this ubiquitous fossil fuel comes with an overlooked and mounting environmental toll – for every barrel of crude oil extracted, an astounding 10 barrels of salty, contaminated wastewater called “produced water” surfaces too.

Global oil and gas operations now generate over 200 billion gallons of this problematic brine annually. Left unmanaged, discharging such copious contaminated waters would inflict catastrophic pollution upon surface and groundwater reserves. Wasted opportunity abounds too – not only could some of this water be suitable for reuse with proper treatment, but the oil, salts, and other constituents trapped within hold intrinsic value as well.

To responsibly meet energy demands while maximizing resource recovery, the petroleum industry has pioneered an innovative desalting process. This critical purification technology transforms what was once a perplexing waste stream into multiple useful products – clean water, marketable oil, and even commercial-grade salt.

As regulations tighten around produced water management and circular sustainability principles take deeper root, desalters are steadily evolving to enhance efficiencies while inching the fossil fuel sector towards its long-term aspirations of zero liquid discharge.

Tackling Oil’s Salty Costream Head-On

The sheer volumes of brine commingled with oil reserves underground pose immense water management hurdles. Over its multi-decade lifetime, a single well can churn out water volumes dwarfing its cumulative oil yield tenfold or more. This prodigious liquid waste can contain a stew of inorganic salts, greases, drilling chemicals, suspended solids, heavy metals like barium and radioactive particles.

In the industry’s early days, hazardous disposal methods like unlined evaporation pits tragically caused over-concentrated brine residues to leach into soil, contaminate aquifers, and decimate surrounding ecosystems through mass wildlife casualties. Public backlash and stringent environmental regulations have since forced a shift towards more responsible produced water practices.

While deep-well injection offered a temporary Band-Aid, the long-term vision centers on desalination and extensive reuse to minimize freshwater withdrawals and consumption. Desalter systems ingeniously split the problematic waste stream into three separate marketable streams:

  • Clean water suitable for reuse in industrial operations, agriculture or even municipal supply after further polishing.
  • Purified oil meeting pipeline specs and refinery-ready for gasoline, diesel and other fuels.
  • Recovered salts potentially repurposed into commercial products like road de-icers.

Two-Phase Demulsification and Separation

Desalting plants remove contaminants from produced water through a meticulously calibrated two-stage process. First, the briny influent undergoes chemical pretreatment to destabilize its extremely stable emulsion.

Fresh from the wellhead, the influent appears as a vinaigrette-like emulsion with microscopically tiny oil droplets dispersed and stubbornly suspended throughout the saline water. PH adjusters, emulsion breakers, flocculants and coagulants are precisely dosed to initiate droplet agglomeration – the first step in demolishing this stable dispersion.

Where the first phase merely loosened the emulsion’s bonds, the system’s second stage cranks up heat and centrifugal force to expedite complete oil/water separation. Inside heater-treaters resembling massive centrifuges, temperatures exceeding 200°F further break hydrocarbon-brine molecular attractions as the rapidly spinning forces sling denser solids and oil globs towards the outer walls.

Arrays of skimmer blades and baffles continually scrape off accumulating oil and sediment layers into dedicated holding tanks. Submersible pumps simultaneously extract the clarifying water stream for final filtration and polishing.

Advanced Desalter Automation and Analytics

While the underlying physics driving demulsification and centrifugal separation dates back decades, today’s desalters harness cutting-edge control systems to dynamically optimize the entire process train. An intricate orchestra of automated sensors, valves, pumps, and chemical dosing modules continually make split-second adjustments based on real-time feed monitoring.

Particle counters and gamma density meters vigilantly measure oil droplet sizes and concentrations. Multiwave Analytical instruments detect residual hydrocarbon bands and dissolved contaminants down to the parts-per-billion level. Machine learning algorithms ingest all this Big Data, dynamically modulating heat, chemical doses, flow rates, and centrifuge speeds for peak performance.

If an upset occurs from an influent surge or process irregularity, these intelligent control systems can automatically re-route flows, tweak operating parameters, or initiate safety shutdowns as needed to prevent off-spec discharges or product contamination. Leveraging industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) connectivity, operators can also remotely monitor and control desalter systems across fragmented oilfields.

This level of comprehensive automation represents a key enabling factor pushing desalter capabilities towards unprecedented efficiencies. It allows operators to squeeze out every last drop of marketable oil while achieving water purity levels supporting greater closed-loop reuse and environmental compliance.

The Future of Responsible Resource Recovery

Petroleum desalters have proven invaluable for bringing produced water management full circle – transforming this problematic byproduct into multiple streams primed for commercial reuse, Zero Liquid Discharge, or safe discharge.

But innovators aren’t resting on desalting’s already-impressive environmental merits. A new wave of technological improvements promises even greater resource recovery with a diminishing footprint:

  • Advanced centrifuge designs coupled with optimized polymer chemistries can shatter tighter oil-water emulsions down to the 15-micron level, compared to conventional 150-micron limits. This enhances oil capture while creating water pure enough for reuse in agricultural irrigation or livestock watering.
  • Integrating desorption, membrane filtration, and even energy-efficient thermal distillation enables desalters to achieve ultrapure “rejection-quality” effluent for potable reuse, boiler feed makeup, or marine discharge without harming aquatic life.
  • Zero Liquid Discharge (ZLD) crystallization systems take desalting’s water recovery full circle, producing solid salt solids for commercial sale rather than concentrating hazardous brines for costly disposal.
  • New exploratory processes can selectively recover high-value salts like lithium – a critical mineral driving battery storage technologies vital for renewable power deployment. Bromine, cesium and strontium present additional potential revenue streams.
  • Continued digital transformation will usher in advanced process controls and machine learning algorithms that self-optimize energy usage, chemical dosing, membrane performance and more via robust IIoT integration.
  • Mobile desalination units mounted on tractor-trailers provide compelling alternatives for treating produced water at remote well sites lacking permanent infrastructure.

As global water scarcity accelerates and climate regulations drive carbon impacts ever-lower, produced water treatment systems like desalters are poised to scale up rapidly in strategic importance. Converting what was once considered a costly nuisance into a source of usable fresh water, fuel products, and revenue-generating chemical inputs will remain a powerful incentive.

The petroleum industry’s persisting desalination technology innovations don’t just enable more responsible fossil fuel extraction in the near-term, they are also collectively pioneering pathways towards a more efficient, circular future. From harnessing digital transformation to exploring new resource-renewing chemistries, desalting’s evolution is reshaping a sector once emblematic of linear consumption into an exemplar of pragmatic sustainability.