Co-founded by a former research chair at the University of Alberta, Water Planet Engineering is testing and refining the technology with help from oil and gas companies in northern Alberta and in the Bakken oilfields in North Dakota and Montana.
The company manufactures mobile units that can be used in remote locations to separate oil from water and then purify it so it can be discharged, or reused commercially.
“Fresh water is a precious resource,” says Subir Bhattacharjee, the firm’s chief technology officer and a former researcher at the University of Alberta. “We need to understand we live in a very connected society, and water is the connection.
“It is absolutely critical for our survival.”
The technology was in its infancy when employed in 2010 after the massive Deepwater Horizon well blowout in the Gulf of Mexico. Researchers developing the equipment flew to Houston to meet with industry representatives, who then placed units on a half-dozen vessels helping with cleanup operations.
The technology was used to separate oil and sea water skimmed off the surface, and then to clean the water so it could be pumped back into the ocean.
The success under such challenging conditions led to Water Planet Engineering being launched the following year, with Hollywood actor Kevin Costner as a principal investor.
Costner flew to Edmonton to meet with Bhattacharjee and other researchers for the company, which is beginning to make inroads into some of the toughest industrial challenges in the world.
“People apply technology and think it will be a glove-to-hand fit, but it hardly ever works that way,” says Bhattacharjee, who retains a home in Edmonton, where his wife is a university professor. “It is more of a matter of tailoring the technology to an exact purpose.
“What we do is take a new tool to the field and make our end users our teachers. There are precious nuggets of information you learn that way.”
The company is exploring setting up units in remote communities to help them maintain a safe and secure water source, as well as working with companies using steam-injected technology to reduce and improve water usage.
“This market has been the first to adopt and test the new technology” Bhattacharjee says. “When you get out of Alberta, you get an appreciation for how good the regulatory framework is, and how conscientious the companies are.
“We are fortunate there is a body of knowledge here that I haven’t found in many places. All you need is a will to employ a technology in a certain environment to see if it works.”