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11. 26. 2013,

Waterworks: Axine looks to make SAGD water treatment more affordable

by Jesse Snyder

Treating wastewater in SAGD operations is a costly business. Is that about to change?

After steam has been injected downhole In steam-assisted gravity drainage SAGD operations, the challenge is less what to do with the oil that flows to the surface, but what to do with everything else. The average SAGD operation might produce one million gallons of industrial wastewater per day – wastewater teeming with dissolved organics, metals, hydrocarbons, pharmaceuticals and other toxins.

Colleen Legzdins (left) and Jonathan Rhone are tackling one of industry’s largest environmental issues Photograph Andrew Querner

Treating this wastewater is already done remarkably well, with some evaporators giving producers 95 per cent efficiency. Doing so cost-effectively, however, remains a tremendous hurdle for the in situ oil sands industry. “Water treatment for SAGD is absolutely core business for producers; it’s a very high-cost portion of what they need to do,” says Jonathan Rhone, the president and chief executive officer of Axine Water Technologies Inc., a Vancouver-based technology firm.

Typically wastewater in the SAGD process is treated one of two ways: either using evaporators or warm-lime softening. Along with company founder and chief engineer Colleen Legzdins, Rhone is looking to provide a third technology to treat industrial wastewater, one they claim will cut $1 to $2 from every barrel of produced oil. Axine is a startup firm but expects to have its patented electrolytic technology, which uses no chemicals in its process, installed at several SAGD operations by 2014. The company will begin by tying in pilot projects of its electrochemical technology into existing water treatment facilities, and hopes to be installing the technology at the commercial stage in 2015.

Axine’s technology looks like a 310-square-inch electrolytic membrane, roughly the size of a sheet of paper, which is inserted between an anode and a cathode (typically where currents flow in or out). Once electricity is applied, wastewater interacts with the anode portion of the catalyst-coated membrane that breaks down toxins into their basic molecules – wa- ter, nitrogen, carbon dioxide. “It’s a brilliantly simple but high-tech solution,” says Rhone.

Each 310-square-inch cell is inserted into a four-square-foot box, or module, which typically contains from a few hundred to a few thousands cells. Water is piped into the box, broken down, and then piped out as treated effluent. On a SAGD site a few hundred modules might be required, where they could be stacked vertically or spread out on the ground. The difference between this technology and others, according to Rhone, is that the catalyst substance releases something called “hydroxyl radicals,” which have a sort of hyperability to oxidize pollutants.

The viability of the technology, however, may not be proven for some time. For now, Rhone is exclusively focused on “plug and play” applications; Axine will tie into existing water treatment facilities, isolate the most toxic water streams and treat them. “We’re not trying to say to the customer, ‘Look, we’ll replace your entire wastewater treatment plant with our black box.’ What we’re saying to them is, ‘We can make your existing system work a lot better.’ ” The question of whether or not Axine can scale up as quickly as planned remains. Rhone’s challenge is proving to his customers that the technology is reliable, durable and simple.

The company started in 2010 in Colleen Legzdins’s basement, where she designed the electrolytic technology. In 2012, the company received around $2.24 million in venture capital. The next stage might be the toughest, however. Rhone says they are considering another round of capital-raising, possibly in the $3- to $5-million range. They have also hired more employees to smooth over the maintenance, transportation and installation aspects of the company.

At the very least, Rhone has his technology’s low cost working in his favor. In the SAGD industry, where legislation requires 90 per cent of wastewater must be recycled according to legislation, the cost of water treatment can be a major cost burden for producers. of producers. While Axine is venturing into a handful of other markets, the legislated water recycling rate has made the energy industry the most interesting. “The biggest market for this is in oil and gas; it’s the big- gest prize. There’s a lot on the line; they’re very cautious about adopting new technologies.”