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Liquid salt could help clean up tar sands


March 23, 2011

A tar sand sample treated with the ionic liquid process(Photo: Penn State University)

A tar sand sample treated with the ionic liquid process
(Photo: Penn State University)

The United States imports approximately one million barrels of oil per day from Canada, which is about twice the amount that it gets from Saudi Arabia. A large percentage of that oil comes from tar sand deposits, in which bitumen (a tar-like form of crude oil) is found combined with sand. The tar sands – also known as oil sands – are hugely controversial, as many people state that the process used for extracting the oil from the sand is too ecologically-unfriendly. A new technique being pioneered at Penn State University, however, could drastically reduce the environmental impact of that process.

The current method of separating sand and bitumen involves adding warm water to the two, then agitating the mixture. Unfortunately, it requires a lot of water, which is diverted from nearby rivers. Once the separation process is complete, the now-polluted water is pumped into open air tailings ponds. From there, it can potentially leach its way back into the water table. There's also another risk – despite the presence of bird-scaring devices, in 2008 approximately 1,600 ducks died when they landed in one of the ponds.

Instead of warm water, the Penn State method utilizes room temperature ionic liquids (ILs), which consist of salt in a liquid state – a solvent such as toluene may also be added. When the ILs are introduced to a sand/bitumen mixture and stirred, the resulting combination settles into three distinct layers: a bottom layer of oil-free sand, a middle layer of ILs, and a top layer of bitumen. The bitumen can then be removed and refined, the ILs can be reused, and residual ILs in the sand can be removed using a relatively small amount of water (which can also be reused), after which the sand can be returned to the environment.

Not only is much less water used, but because nothing needs to be heated, there are also substantial energy savings.

The researchers state that the ionic liquids could also be used to clean up beaches devastated by oil spills. Sand could be cleaned and redeposited on the spot, supposedly containing even less hydrocarbons than it did before the spill ever occurred.

We'll be watching this one with interest ...

About the Author
Ben Coxworth An experienced freelance writer, videographer and television producer, Ben's interest in all forms of innovation is particularly fanatical when it comes to human-powered transportation, film-making gear, environmentally-friendly technologies and anything that's designed to go underwater. He lives in Edmonton, Alberta, where he spends a lot of time going over the handlebars of his mountain bike, hanging out in off-leash parks, and wishing the Pacific Ocean wasn't so far away. All articles by Ben Coxworth

it is not clear what \'salt\' this article is talking about. Common salt (NaCl) only becomes liquid at around 800 degrees C but the article talks about \"room temperature ionic liquids (ILs), which consist of salt in a liquid state\".

So are they using a \'salt\' of another element? If so what \'salt\' is employed in this technique?

Overall this approach seems revolutionary and I hope it can be \'scaled up\' for commercial use in Canada and indeed elsewhere.

A bit more information would help.


While liberals restrict us from drilling our own oil - with deposits larger than Saudi Arabia - our president is loaning the Brazilians $2B to drill their oil, and then sell it to us. While 60,000 are out of work in the coastal drilling shutdown.

Extraction from tar sands is dirty, costly and inefficient. Just like buying it from the Saudis and putting it in oil tankers. Doesn\'t make sense, does it?

But then, what actually works doesn\'t matter to liberals because unicorn love will raise the winds and make windmills turn for peace and harmony.

Todd Dunning

Todd D, I fully agree with you as far as the environmentalists goes. Once gasolilne reaches $5/gallon the environment won\'t matter any more. But to suggest the US have larger deposits than Saudi Arabia (I assume you are talking of crude oil deposits) is just preposterous.


@Todd, How will drilling your own supply help in any significant way. It will not reduce the price of oil. Oil is priced on the open market. Prices are set by GLOBAL supply and GLOBAL demand. Yes you might employ some folks. But based on the exponentially increasing energy demand from China and India alone we won\'t be able to affect market prices. You can\'t say \"This is our oil and we\'re selling it cheeper.\" because we live in a capitalist system (which is a good thing). I don\'t have an answer for a cheeper alternative. But I do know you can\'t side step the commodities markets.

Jeff Rosati

The question from Alien about which salt might be liquid at room temps is intriguing. I\'m not a chemist, but it seems unlikely. On the other hand there is a metal that is liquid at room temp (mercury), so I guess there could be a salt.

A potentially more important question: could this technique be used to extract oil from the shale oil formations in CO and elsewhere? It seems possible. If it could, then most likely our recoverable deposits of crude oil WOULD be greater than Saudi. I have heard that the shale oil deposits are ginormous, but with current techniques it costs more to extract it than it\'s worth. Plus it\'s probably an environmental problem.


Sorry Jeff, you are just plain wrong. The reason oil is up is as a direct result of traders and speculation, not supply and demand.

Further, not being dependent on OPEC and other unfriendlies is a distinct political, economic and emotional advantage.

The third and most important advantage of domestic production is twofold: Direct supply to the strategic reserve and domestic price models that are unhooked from speculative markets via export levies and/or regulation.


While right wing loonies are hell-bent on converting our planet into a polluted CO2 pressure cooker, this technology at least offers the possibility of cleaning up some of the mess they insist God would never let happen.

Meanwhile, the titanic cost in blood and money of this crude source of energy continue to drag America down into debts that we cannot repay and damage we cannot repair. But guys like Todd think that\'s just peachy because his oil stocks went up!

Thanks Todd, for being what you are. I assume in 2012 you\'ll be voting for the the crookedest, craziest Republicans that wail the loudest loony tunes at the full moon. Keep watching Murdoch\'s monkeys Todd. They push all the right buttons to keep you walking the zombie walk.

Jim Parker
The huge catch is that one must plow up vast regions to gather the oil sands and that involves killing the entire surface of every living creature and plant. So after you murder half of Canada you will then have a better sorting process with this new method. But what kind of lunatic is willing to bulldoze most of Canada and a great deal of the US as well? In essence we have three, right now, energy sources that are useful and can be reasonably non destructive.We have wind and wave, solar and nuclear. We should be going at it with frantic speeds trying to convert our entire way of life to these three sources. Oil and coal are dead issues. Facebook User

Jim if only you could debate the topic at hand we could have an exchange of opinion. But lashing out with prerecorded \'C02\' \'blood\', \'oil stocks\' and \'Murdoch\' just reminds other readers what idiotic things they used to say in their twenties.

Todd Dunning

Too bad the Pennsylvania gov wants to cut the university\'s funding 50%. Gotta love those goopers http://www.collegian.psu.edu/archive/2011/03/14/Metro_PA_budget_2011.aspx


Allen:Salt is a chemical term. It does not necessarily mean NaCl. But I too wanted to know what salt was used. habakak: The largest crude oil deposit in the world could be in N.D. Todd: The energy crisis is not a liberal-conservative issue. It is a symptom of a much bigger problem. Amory Lovins, the world\'s leading expert on energy (see RMI), has said that the crisis could be solved easily by removing all energy subsidies and regulation. A free market is our only means of production. We have never had one, only a mixed market of some freedom and some gov interference. The more freedom the more prosperity and vice versa. For example, oil is exported because the dollars spent are \"loaned\" back to the government via treasuries. Who benefits? The politicians and the banksters. Who loses? We do. Whose to blame? We are. As long as people trust gov to run their lives instead of taking responsibility for themselves we will be exploited. Throughout history governments have destroyed society for the benefit of an elite because no way has ever been found to limit power once delegated.


Just to clarify some things about the oil sands:

The correct name is \'oil sands\' not \'tar sands\'. There is oil and sand, there is no tar up there. Al Gore and other environuts like to call it \'tar sands\' because it sounds worse (it\'s better for scaring people and raising more money.)

Most of the water used in the oil sands is brackish water pumped up from deep wells. This water is not fit for any other use. The brackish water is recycled and re-used over and over with only a small amount (less than 5%) going into the settling ponds.

There has been no leakage of water from the settling ponds into the aquifer. None.

It only takes 2 weeks to re-claim a settling pond now. When the oil sands first started it took years to re-claim a pond. (Environuts refuse to recognize this and still say it takes years. They are lying.)

ALL new oil sands developments are using the SAGD process or similar process. SAGD has less environmental impact than regular oil production. There is no open pit mining, settling ponds, or other issues that environuts object to. The only open pit mining still being done is by the original 2 oil sands companies and they are not growing, they are shrinking.

Mined areas that are depleted of oil are put back into their original habitat complete with native trees, flowers, weeds, soil, swamps, insects, and animals. You cannot tell the difference between a re-claimed mine area and a virgin area of forest next to it. I have seen it first hand. Movie mogul (Avatar) James Cameron saw it first hand and said the same thing.


Could that liquid salt be brine? Digging tar sand is a lot easier that drilling oil from the ocean depths. The land can be resurfaced when extraction is finished. Near where I live, there are a number of gravel pits, and I have seen them open, and then several years later later, you would not know anything had happened as the land is reclaimed. Is anything happening with methane hydrate? Another apparently huge fuel supply.


Automobiles ran on alcohol when invented. Everyone had a still, and made their own fuel. It wasn\'t until the Rockefellers bought congress and established prohibition that people started using gasoline, a byproduct of lamp oil manufacturing, which the Rockefellers just happened to have in abundance. Please check the validity of my statements.

Facebook User

voluntaryist I agree with all of your sentiments 100%, except there is no \"energy crisis\". There are only competing interests vying for business, whether green-painted taxpayer boondoggles that don\'t generate electricity, or technologies like nuclear that scare hippies.

Todd Dunning

Until the Muslum world unites , we need to not rely on their fossil fuels . Canada is much less hostile .

Facebook User

Facebook User - Gasoline was a byproduct of the oil based lamp oil, that saved the whales. it was cheaper, and more energetic than ethanol.

Even assuming that it was prohibition that switched the motor fuel from Ethanol to gasoline. Using agricultural land to produce transport fuel is stupid when there is a viable alternative. Farm raised motor fuel raises the price of food, disproportionally hurting the poor. This is true whether it is food for draft animals, or corn to make ethanol, to inefficiently replace gasoline.

habakak - The USofA is over four and a half times bigger than Saudi Arabia, and petroleum geologists keep finding new oil deposits, as well as new extractable oil in formally expended fields. If the drilling bans on and off shore in the USofA were lifted The USofA would be a major oil exporter, for at least fifty years. As a country that enforces its environmental laws, oil drilling, and production would would cause less environmental impact than in ant third world country.


Regarding the question of what salts they\'re using, the press release on the Penn State site (http://live.psu.edu/story/52088 - and by the way, it would be more useful, Gizmag, to link to the actual press release instead of the University home page) says, \"The researchers work with a group of ionic liquids based on 1-alkyl-3-methylimidazolium cations, a positively charged material with high chemical and thermal stability, a low degree of flammability, and almost negligible vapor pressure, which makes recovering the ionic liquid relatively simple.\" I don\'t know what 1-alkyl-3-methylimidazolium cations are, or even if they\'re a salt, but maybe other readers do.

Sam Diener

gizmag articles certainly generate much thought! 1) there never has been a true \'oil shortage\', all being created for political/financial reasons. a posting accurately noted that the wild price swings are due to manipulation, not physical reasons. remember the key bur hidden fact that the oil industry is a highly efficient, fully integrated, verticle market, controlled by a handful of companies and nations. this gives them TOTAL worldwide control of pricing. the so-called \'free market\' effect of speculators and futures performs in reaction to this oligopoly\'s manipulations, not the reverse. 2) since nixon\'s day - at least - u.s. strategic energy policy is to conserve national resources and to use up foreign reserves. high prices are an added bonus as 70badamp or more of all world oil money comes to the u.s. (!). 3) u.s. oil companies, effectively, usually own 50% of their energy sources. high prices make them and the oil nations rich but most of those nations make enormous arms buys of u.s. tech goods AND human services and then place almost ALL of the unspent $$ into U.S. banks or hold $$ physically in greenbacks! 4) the result of this all-oil-$$-flows-into-the-u.s.???, well first, it\'s allowed bush and now obama to pay for the (oil) wars in iran (to get the oil fields) and grungistan (key transit route for mid-asia oil reserves) without destroying the u.s. economy. the incredible profits from the double-to-tripling of gas prices worldwide since the iran invasion almost all came under u.s. control and thus the world is funding america\'s wars - sweet trick ! 5) top u.s. leaders still revel in the Profit made from the first gulf war. \'the saudis declared was and the u.s. got the contract! was the in-country joke at the (i was there). the deal was that the u.s. would get costs-plus-10% (very common/\'traditional\' terms for oil-world contracts). the british imperialists must have looked on in envy at their protege\'s succesw! 6) there\'s much more to this but a careful search of the web about oil, pricing thereof, and u.s. oil policy will provide support for these comments AND provide a profound education in reality.


It takes three seconds to google ionic liquid and get a formula. Isn\'t the web Awesome. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ionic_liquid

Wesley Bruce
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