“ SDTC support has helped Saltworks develop and commercialize advanced water-treatment solutions much needed by industry. Our SaltMaker and ElectroChem technologies treat wastewaters to produce freshwater for a range of applications while reducing waste, energy requirements, and emissions. Saltworks is proud to have SDTC behind these green and more cost effective technologies, which are creating high tech jobs while helping Canadian industry improve competitiveness and lower environmental impact. With SDTC’s support, Saltworks and Canada can become world leaders in water treatment.”
Steam-assisted gravity drainage (SAGD) uses steam to soften underground oil sands, separating oil and sand in a process that is both energy and water intensive. Saltworks has worked with industry to develop the ElectroChem ion exchange membrane system, a low energy and chemical-free softening process that eliminates some minerals from brackish water to increase freshwater recovery, and the SaltMaker, which harnesses waste heat to separate water normally discarded as part of the SAGD process (“blowdown”) into freshwater and solid salt. The technologies were developed with, and piloted by, oil sands partners and are now being exported internationally to treat landfill leachate, smelter discharges and shale gas waters.
Water use in industrial applications is becoming an increasing concern from a number of perspectives. Disposal of produced water, flowback, blowdown and contaminated process water is expensive and removes vast volumes of scarce water from the hydrology cycle. Many purification and recycling technologies currently being used are also expensive and yield a large environmental footprint. Saltworks’ advanced desalination technologies—making fresh water from some of the world’s toughest salt waters—offer inexpensive solutions to reuse water and protect the environment from a wide variety of industrial waste waters generated by the mining and oil and gas industries.
SDTC has been working with Saltworks since 2009, when it helped the company develop a low energy seawater desalination pilot plant at Port Metro Vancouver. The technology used dry air and low-grade thermal energy—commonly found in abundance in seaside areas—to turn salt water into fresh water.
After developing and piloting the thermo-ionic system, Saltworks worked with industry to adapt the innovation for industrial use, which resulted in the original desalination process being split into two parts: an electrochemical membrane system to change water chemistry, called ElectroChem, and the SaltMaker. The electrochemical process uses specialized membranes to change water chemistry and removes about 95 per cent of the salt or other contaminants from water. The SaltMaker squeezes the remaining five per cent of salt—or other contaminants—from the water and leaves behind fresh water and a solid that can be landfilled or, depending on its properties, used in other industrial processes.
As Saltworks refined its thermal-ionic desalination process, industry began to pay attention. The oil and gas industry was interested in using Saltworks’ technology to treat a wide range of contaminated water produced during SAGD operations while mining companies wanted to use the technology to treat mining runoff waters. Teck Resources was an early investor in Saltworks, utilizing the technologies in its mining operations. On the oil and gas side, Suncor Energy showed early interest, and subsequent investments have come from Cenovus Energy, BPand ConocoPhillips.
Using methodical, steady scale-up from initial bench tests to a series of increasingly larger demonstration units, Saltworks eventually developed a pilot plant for use in SAGD operations, only to see crude oil prices collapse. Lessons learned in the oil sands have been translated to other industrial sectors, specifically the landfill and smelting industries, and the technology is now being marketed in the United States and Mexico, with China also on the radar. When crude prices recover, the technology will come home to Canada and be marketed as a key component of future SAGD and oil sands mining operations.