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Pics: Soane Energy Aims to Make Oil Production Less Harsh on the Environment

Posted by Scott Kirsner  September 13, 2009 12:07 PM

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davidsoane.jpgToday's column is a visit to Soane Energy, the latest start-up company from chemical engineer and serial entrepreneur David Soane.

From the piece:


    Im fascinated by alternative energy technologies like solar and wind, Soane says, but you have to acknowledge that most of our energy today comes from fossil fuels, and what were doing is trying to make that process greener and more energy efficient.

    This week, the company will disclose an investment of several million dollars - Soane wont be more specific - from Cambridge-based Intervale Capital, a private equity fund, and Chevron Corp.s venture capital arm.


Here are some pics from my visit, which explain the company's approach to helping make oil production from Canada's oil sands more environmentally sustainable.

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Here's the entrance to Soane Energy, out near Alewife in Cambridge. Three other Soane companies share space with it: Soane Labs, NanoPaper, and DuraFizz.

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Employees of Soane Energy gave me a demo to show how oil sands get turned into synthetic crude oil -- and how that process produces a sludgy mixture of water, clay, sand, and traces of oil that the industry calls "tailings."

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Here's a jar full of the tailings. For every barrel of oil produced, oil companies generate about 10 barrels of tailings. The tailings are poured into giant ponds.

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The sand and clay get separated by spinning them in a mechanical "cyclone." Two specially-designed polymers are used in Soane's process. The sand gets treated with a "tethering" polymer, and the fines with an "activator." When the sand and clay are mixed together again, the two polymers cause the sand and clay to attach, and the sand serves as an anchor, pulling the clay to the bottom along with it. You can see the sand and clay separating from the water in the picture above.

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The water is then filtered out. It can then be re-used again as part of the process of extracting oil from oil sands.

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The end result is a clay/sand substance that's dry enough and solid enough to return to the same ground from which the oil sands were originally mined.

One of Soane Energy's new investors is the venture capital arm of the Chevron Corp., one of the companies that's active in Canada's oil sands region.

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Scott Kirsner was part of the team that launched Boston.com in 1995, and has been writing a column for the Globe since 2000. His work has also appeared in Wired, Fast Company, The New York Times, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, and Variety. Scott is also the author of the books "Fans, Friends & Followers" and "Inventing the Movies," was the editor of "The Convergence Guide: Life Sciences in New England," and was a contributor to "The Good City: Writers Explore 21st Century Boston." Scott also helps organize several local events on entrepreneurship, including the Nantucket Conference and Future Forward. Here's some background on how Scott decides what to cover, and how to pitch him a story idea.

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