Geoscientists win grant to clean ‘produced water’ from oil drilling

Joshua Swigart and Charles Paradis are hoping to stop earthquakes and change the oil industry for good, and they were just awarded a $50,000 Catalyst Grant to help them do it.

Swigart is a UWM graduate student working toward his PhD in geosciences with Paradis, an assistant professor of geosciences, as his advisor. Swigart, who has an extensive background in water remediation and in the oil and gas industry, has an idea to address “produced water,” a problematic byproduct of conventional oil and gas drilling.

Together, they applied to the UWM Research Foundation’s grant program with hopes of bringing Swigart’s idea to market. To date, the Research Foundation has awarded over $23 million in Catalyst Grant funding.

A problem in the oil fields

For every barrel of crude oil pumped out of the ground, up to 10 barrels of “produced water” are pumped with it. Produced water is just that – a byproduct produced as a result of pumping oil and gas.

“It’s the remnant of an ocean that was there millions of years ago,” Swigart explained. “There’s brine water deep down in the strata, so this is brine water and it has a few heavy metals.”

Those contaminants leave oil producers with a quandary: What to do with this water?

There are a few alternatives, including land farming, where oil producers spread the produced water over soil and work the land until the soil can remediate the water. Afterwards, the land can be used to grow plant life like Bermuda grass. But the cheapest method, said Swigart – and until recently, the one that caused the least liability – is for oil and gas companies to inject that water right back into the ground in a saltwater disposal well.

But that causes its own set of problems.

“Currently seismic activity in West Texas has increased exponentially, and this is a direct result of this down-hole injection of produced water,” Swigart said.

In fact, it was an earthquake that inspired him to begin researching a way to reclaim produced water. Swigart recounted how, several years ago, he was working at the University of Texas Permian Basin when he heard what sounded like a train engine barreling down the track.

“(I) immediately thought that might be an earthquake. I felt the wave come through me and pass through my body. It was my first time ever experiencing an earthquake,” he said. “I already knew that deep well injection was linked to earthquakes in West Texas, so the next day I went to working on how I could stop the problem.”

Swigart has worked in oil fields and as an environmental remediation consultant, so he has the background and knowledge to invent a product or process that can reclaim produced water. What he didn’t have was the funding or the business savvy, but Paradis knew where to find that.

Winning the Catalyst grant

Paradis suggested that the two sign up for Milwaukee’s NSF I-Corps program, which connects academics with business mentors to help them learn how to bring a product or idea to market. Paradis describes it as a “business bootcamp for scientists,” and he thinks it helped make the difference in their Catalyst Grant application.

With grant money in hand, Paradis was ready for the next steps. That meant sending Swigart to Texas to gather 40 samples from 40 saltwater disposal wells.

“They’re in the lab and we’re running them for water quality measures – metals, pH, alkalinity, conductivity – to better get a sense of the quality of this water coming into this system so Josh can better design it,” Paradis said.

As they began analyzing the samples, they realized that there are actually some very valuable materials in all of that produced water – things like leftover oil, silver, uranium, mercury, and lithium, to name a few.

“We’re learning more and more that there’s likely valuable resources that can be recovered, and the profits from that can be used to make Josh’s system more economical,” Paradis said. “Josh’s system is expensive. Reverse osmosis is expensive. Enhanced volatilization is expensive. But if we can identify important resources that are in that water and add a step or two … in Josh’s system to pluck out lithium for batteries for Elon Musk and his cars, or uranium for the Department of Energy for fuel purposes, then that (proves) the economic viability of Josh’s system.”

And, Swigart added, if his system works as intended, oil companies will have clean water at the end of the process – an extremely valuable commodity in many of the drought-stricken areas where oil is pumped.

The next steps

For now, Swigart and Paradis are still working on analyzing the produced water samples. They’ll use that analysis to tweak Swigart’s process and better understand how to remediate the produced water.

They’re both on the hunt for more funding. A $50,000 grant is exciting and helpful, but Paradis is on the lookout for the next $50,000 to help them on their way. Swigart plans to talk to investors and even contact the Gates Foundation.

Long-term, he hopes that his process will not only have a positive impact on the oil industry, but in places where water scarcity is an issue. It may be that his process can help people clean their drinking water, improving their health and communities.

“So, there are two goals,” Swigart joked. “One is to make a bunch of money off of the oil companies, and the other is to help people.”

By Kathy Quirk, University Relations