Researchers at Penn State University have published a paper describing a new approach for separating heavy oil from sands and clays using ionic liquids. The method is reported to use very little water or energy, and to cleanly separate the oil, the sand, and the solvent so that the sand goes back to its source, the oil goes on to the refinery, and the solvent can be reused. A picture is worth a thousand words:
Assume for the moment that the tech can be scaled up to industrial sizes. Is it a good thing?
As a tool for cleaning up the environment by separating out oil from contaminated sediments of various sorts, it would seem to be a very good thing. There are any number of places that are simply impractical to clean, or finish cleaning, today. Waste storage near the Canadian oil sands comes to mind as an immediate example. Oily waste water in holding ponds and the resulting contaminated sediments could actually be cleaned. As could areas contaminated by oil spills from tankers, pipelines, and wells.
Canadian and Venezuelan firms that extract oil from oil sands would no doubt regard it as a good thing. Given that little water or energy is required for the separation process, their costs for extracting petroleum would be significantly reduced. It would also make the operation more environmentally friendly, at least in the sense of local damage. Lack of available water is also a limiting factor in production of oil from oil sands in areas such as Utah. The new technology might enable production from those sources.
On the other hand, if you believe that global warming is an issue that must be addressed, then it is clear that any tech that enables increased production of petroleum is a bad thing. Production from oil sands using ionic liquids may be much cleaner than the current technologies. But if it enables production of another million barrels of petroleum per day, that's another million barrels per day that will be converted to carbon dioxide and released into the atmosphere, contributing to the global problem.
I feel reasonably confident predicting that, in the long run, people are going to extract every drop of global petroleum that they can. And burn it. Given that as an assumption, cleaner production can only be regarded as a good thing. Here's hoping the ionic liquids approach is as clean as it looks, and scales.