Riggs Eckelberry founded OriginOil with his brother Nicholas in 2007. The idea then was targeting the need in the budding algae biofuel industry for efficient, low-energy dewatering and algae extraction technology.
I recently spoke with Riggs to discuss OriginOil’s original mission and its unexpected journey into a unanticipated market. A technology company with applications from clean energy to oil and gas development, OriginOil sees its original mission expanding in reach and potential impact.
OriginOil’s technological journey began with single step extraction, a process that cycles water through a network of tubes forcing any solids (algae in this application) to flocculate (or clump together into an algal mass). A second stage was developed on the foundation of single step extraction called hydrogen floatation. This secondary step, Eckelberry explains, consists essentially of a “mass of bubbles in a tank” pushing the flocculated material to the top for harvesting. The combination of these two synergistic stages, called Solids Out of Solution (SOS), is the cornerstone of OriginOil.
The SOS process, originally designed for algae biofuel production, has recently found a “totally unexpected” application in the oil and gas fields where hydrological fracking is taking hold in a big way.
Hyrdrofracking is controversial (to understate it) and comes with a number of environmental concerns, particularly with the chemicals used in the fracking fluid and its impact on groundwater resources. Nonetheless, fracking is here and the number of wells and drilling operations is rapidly expanding. Advances in fracking technology have made economically borderline supplies of oil and natural gas viable and ripe for exploitation. The fracking boom is on.
The debate rages over the dangers, regulation and future of fracking, but practical reality demands ongoing application of clean, efficient technologies to make current fracking operations cleaner. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, three barrels of contaminated water is generated for every single barrel of oil produced from fracking. Removing organic materials and other solids is an important aspect of cleaner fracking processes and one for which, if unexpectedly at first, SOS is very well suited.
The Clean-Frac system uses the SOS process as a single-stage application for separating organics from “produced” or frack flow-back water. At this stage, operators have the ability to reuse process water for further fracturing or drilling fluids operations. Reusing process water significantly reduces trucking and disposal costs and eliminates operator concerns with reusing untreated produced water, which is corrosive and can reduce fracking performance.
In recent independent testing done by PACE Engineering, 98 percent of hydrocarbons were removed from the single-stage SOS process alone. Samples were taken from 200,000 gallons of oil-rich “frack flow-back” water taken over a two-week period at a West Texas oil well. When coupled with equipment from OriginOil, SOS functions as a first stage in a multi-stage process capable of converting the produced water into releasable class B groundwater.
Possibilities require focus: David faces off with Goliath
As it turns out, a clean, efficient method of removing solids and compounds from liquid solution has a variety of applications. From aquaculture to mine tailings, the Solids out of Solution process has proven efficacious. But it is on the oil and gas fields that OriginOil now directs its focus.
You need to make a decision,” says Eckelberry. “You can’t do twelve things at a time, and so recently we reorganized to make the oil and gas water cleanup activity – be it produced water or frack – our main focus of the company.
Everything else is a licensing group that we have established. Really, that’s just to go ‘ok, you think that ammonia in mine tailings – or cyanide or arsenic, whatever – are big problems. Fine, let’s make you the master licensee, you go for it.’ That’s our angle.
But in the oil business, they’ve been around and there are some big players. We’re up against – I guess the best and most clear competitor to our process – is Halliburton itself, which has a ‘CleanWave’ three-stage process that has many similarities to ours. …we like the fact that we’re vastly cheaper, a lot faster, lower energy, etc. But there’s a lot of similarities and so if we’re going to go up against Halliburton, we need to have full focus.”
Positioned as technology company, OriginOil doesn’t define itself as a vendor or service provider. It’s a “hub and spoke” process, Eckelberry explains, that leads to master licensees for each spoke. “I don’t believe that we will be operators in any particular industry, even in the oil and gas space.”
A century of remediation
“I call this the century of remediation,” says Eckelberry, “we’ve got so much stuff to clean up and we have to. We’re turning everything into a sewer. And there’s an opportunity here to apply this technology as a clean-up activity in a variety of cases. Our job is going to have to be to make it very efficient to repurpose (our technology) so that we can roll it out very quickly.”
Indeed it is a big, messy world out there. As much as we all may wish for and work toward a clean energy future, there remains the reality of today. Whether it be the billions of gallons of water shot down wells laden with hydrocarbons, tons of mine detritus leaching into soil, or any number of “stuff we have to clean up,” Eckelberry’s mission is to postion OriginOil as a means to the end in the century of remediation.
Image courtesy of OriginOil