New Method Of Extracting Oil From Tar Sands Will Also Help Clean Up Oil Spills

We're coming up on a year since the Gulf Oil Spill, but research continues regarding how oil spill cleanup can be improved.  A team of researchers from Penn State University have developed an eco-friendly method for separating oil from tar sands.  By utilizing ionic liquids to separate the heavy, viscous oil from sand, this method can also clean up beaches after oil spills as well as separating oil from drill cuttings.

Traditional methods of extracting oil from tar sands are not very eco-friendly: Image via arch1designs.comTraditional methods of extracting oil from tar sands are not very eco-friendly: Image via

Tar sands, also referred to as bituminous sands or oil sands, account for approximately two-thirds of the world's oil reserves.  The U.S. imports more than 1 million barrels of oil per day from Canada, the world's major producer of unconventional petroleum from sands.  In fact, the U.S. imports twice as much of this kind of oil as they do from Saudi Arabia.  Unfortunately, the traditional method of extracting petroleum from tar sands is not very environmentally friendly.  For one, the process results in contaminated wastewater that often seeps into groundwater, polluting lakes and rivers.  Furthermore, the traditional methods require large amounts of water, thus depleting the supply of local fresh water sources.

However, Penn State's new method, which takes place at room temperature without generating wastewater, relies on ionic liquids (salt in a liquid state) and minimal energy and water.  Furthermore, those ionic liquids can be recycled and used again.

 "Essentially, all the bitumen is recovered in a very clean form, without any contamination from the ionic liquids," said professor of polymer science, Paul Painter (say that three times fast).  Painter and his team spent the past 18 months developing this technique.  

Professor of Polymer Science at Penn State, Paul PainterProfessor of Polymer Science at Penn State, Paul Painter This is a process that not only can be used for extracting oil from tar sands but can also be applied in extracting oil and tar from beaches after oil spills like last year's Deepwater Horizon incident.  This process is said to completely remove hydrocarbons, which is something the traditional methods can't do.  What's more, the sand cleaned after this new process can be returned to their original beaches rather than landfills. 

The research team conducted an experiment that used sand contaminated from the BP spill.  The result?  This method separated hydrocarbons from the sand within seconds.  Furthermore, the small amount of water that was used was recoverable. 

One of the researchers, Aron Lupinsky, said of the experiment, "It was so clean you could toss it back on the beach.  Plus the only extra energy you need is enough to stir the mixture."

Sources: Penn State Live and UPI