What is Produced Water? Can We Reuse it?

Worldwide oil and gas operations generate nearly 95 million barrels of oil everyday. This extraction is accompanied by almost 250 million barrels of polluted water, which the industry calls “produced water.” Unlike groundwater, produced water contains high levels of mineral salts and toxic organic and inorganic compounds.

With the global population crossing the 8 billion mark, purifying this contaminated by-product can play a crucial role in solving our planet’s water problems in more ways than one. Today, let’s learn more about produced water, the challenges and opportunities it brings, and how Undesert’s SWAP purification technology can transform this wastewater into an ultra-pure resource. 

What is Produced Water?

Produced water is one of the largest by-products of oil and gas exploration. Nearly 250 million barrels of produced water is generated for 95 million barrels of oil daily. Although the quality of this water depends on the geographic location and formation of the field, it is typically associated with high salinity and organic compounds, including VOCs, oils, waxes, and hydrocarbons. 

Produced water is known to contain inorganic metals and compounds as well as naturally occurring radioactive material. In other words, this is a heavily contaminated wastewater stream. And though several commercial treatment options exist, most are prohibitively expensive and energy-intensive, making disposal of this untreated water seem like the only cost-effective option for the operators. 

Undesert’s SWAP purification technology addresses these challenges by making it possible to remove all traces of salts, chemicals, and minerals from produced water effectively and competitively.

The Impact of Produced Water on the Environment

In the United States, 45% of produced water is reused in “enhanced recovery operations” (EOR) in conventional oil and gas reservoirs. The remaining 488 billion gallons of water annually are injected into saltwater disposal wells or discharged into the environment.

The inorganic and organic content of produced water makes it more toxic than crude oil. When it’s let into the waterways or left on land untreated, it negatively impacts marine life and human health through groundwater and soil contamination.

Benefits of Purifying Produced Water

Right now, less than one percent of produced water is reused outside conventional oil and gas operations. Cost and logistical barriers have made its direct disposal a more appealing option for companies.

However, once purified, this water has the potential to be as valuable a commodity as freshwater. In the US alone, purification of produced water can make 488 billion gallons of water per year available for reuse.

Here’s all we stand to gain by scaling up the purification of produced water.

A New Source of Water for Agriculture & Reforestation Initiatives

Globally, over 70% of freshwater withdrawal is channeled toward agricultural use, causing a water scarcity problem we need to solve if we’re going to tackle the Goal 6 of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

Reducing the excessive dependence on precious water is possible by making large volumes of purified produced water accessible for crop irrigation, livestock watering, hydroponic farming, and aquaculture, as well as reforestation projects on degraded lands to tackle climate change.

Reduction in Direct Disposal Volumes

The industry standard for dealing with produced water is to dump it untreated in saltwater disposal wells.

Once re-injected, this water is permanently removed from the ecosystem and the water cycle. Not to mention the environmental concerns associated with the disposal of untreated toxic water. A more sustainable and economical solution is to purify and reuse it for other applications. 

Augmenting Municipal Water 

According to the 2023 UN World Water Development Report, one-third to half the global urban population could be grappling with water scarcity by 2050.

The stress on freshwater resources can be reduced by making large volumes of purified produced water available to meet the demands of municipal activities in addition to industrial and agricultural use. Applications include fire control, dust suppression, recreation, industrial cooling, irrigation of parks, and much more.

Undesert: Leading the Shift From Wastewater to a Usable Resource

Although replenishable, freshwater is finite, and counting on the natural water cycle alone has plunged us into a global water crisis. Through purification, alternate sources like produced water that were historically treated as waste can reduce our reliance on freshwater for several day-to-day activities. 

Our multi-patented SWAP technology allows companies to achieve purification of heavily contaminated industrial water at scale and in the most resource-optimizing way. Our device is designed to run on low energy and function round-the-clock with minimal supervision. In addition to helping oil and gas operators tackle produced water safely and efficiently, we are working towards building channels for our purified wastewater into farming, clean water projects, and reversing desertification.  

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