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Swirltex steps into the Permian with membrane tech

Swirltex sees its tubular membranes as a big win for Permian producers focusing on water recycling .

With disposal costs expected to rise, Permian Basin producers are increasingly seeking new ways to effectively treat produced water for oilfield recycling. This trend has piqued the interest of Canadian startup Swirltex, which sees the basin as a key market for its buoyancy-based ultrafiltration technology.

The company has recently taken its first steps into the US market, with bench testing beginning in Q4 2019 with an unnamed water services provider for a major Permian Basin operator. Melanie McClare, Swirltex CEO, expects the project to enter a 1,000-bbl/d pilot phase by summer 2020.

The company’s approach entails injecting produced water with gas bubbles that attach to suspended solids particles and coalesce oil droplets. A spiral flow pattern is then induced through a tubular polyvinylidene fluoride membrane, which creates a centrifugal force that channels contaminants to the center of the tube, thereby limiting their interaction with the membrane.

This process allows tough water streams to be treated with lower-than-typical frequency of membrane maintenance or replacement. McClare also sees the technology as a better alternative to other treatment polishing steps such as walnut shell filters or the use of flocculants to drop out undesirable constituents.

“We produce a higher-grade wastewater than the majority of the technologies on the market today,” McClare told Water in Oil, adding that higher-quality recycled water protects frack and downhole production integrity. “You’ll have residual contaminants and oil in your water when using chemistry to drop out contaminants, whereas membranes are guaranteed to get that under 5 mg/l for both oil and solids.”

As Swirltex’s membranes can separate out particles under 1 micron in size, TDS reduction is not a focus. However, bacteria can be filtered, which is appealing especially for companies with biocide expenses.

Though its technology was initially developed to treat sewage and municipal wastewater, pivoting towards the oil & gas industry was a logical step for Swirltex.

“There is going to be an inflection point in the market whereby reuse and recycling becomes absolutely critical for every producer,” McClare said. “We believe that we’re on the front end of this wave of industry change and can help customers recycle as much produced water as they can onsite so they can save on disposal costs.”

Swirltex has already performed successful bench tests with producers in Canada, to date observing fluxes exceeding 150 l/m2/hr. The company is now building its first pilot plant, which will be deployed in March 2020 to carry out paid pilots with two producers operating in the Montney Shale and one in the Duvernay Shale. The two-to-three-month pilots are expected to test flow rates of 300 bbl/d through membrane modules 10 inches in diameter and 2 meters in length.

The next step will be commercial testing to gather data needed for a full-scale system capable of processing 10,000-20,000 bbl/d from the Swirltex Produced Water Unit, a mobile 40-foot container using similarly sized membrane modules. Full-scale projects will be designed to meet producers’ specific needs.

“In some cases, we’ll be able to work with less membrane surface area because the water is pretty predictable. In other areas, we’ll need to put more membranes in to attenuate the flows and make sure that we can perform in worst-case scenarios,” McClare explained. She added that the company’s modular technology design would allow for scaled-up installations at larger centralized recycling facilities.

Swirltex is now seeking strategic partners – investors, producers and water services providers – to help commercialize its technology in the US. The company is particularly interested in the Permian Basin, where produced water recycling is currently growing at a faster pace than in other unconventional plays.

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