Epiphany puts a new twist on existing technology.
When Epiphany Water Solutions started up 12 years ago, it had its eye on Africa and the developing world, but in a twist, its modular technology is now looking for a home in domestic shale plays such as the Pennsylvania’s Marcellus and Colorado’s Niobara.
“We started with the long-term mission of creating off-grid desalination plants for the developing world,” said Tom Joseph, an Epiphany co-founder and its CEO. “It became clear very quickly that, despite popular belief, the world’s water problem is not about the availability of water. The problem is the location of the fresh water. Transporting water from where it is to where we need it often costs more than two-thirds of the overall cost of water. This led us to the conclusion that the only way to solve the world’s water crisis would be to develop compact and decentralized desalination plants that could deliver a ‘point-source solution.’”
“To make this economically viable, our plants also had to be mass produced and extremely scalable on the production side,” Joseph said. “We were thinking of thousands of tiny plants with fully automated operations and remote monitoring from a central station. We set out to develop something that could alter the water industry the way cellular technology altered the telephone industry.”
About three years into developing the technology, Pittsburgh, Pa.-based Epiphany—which started with seed money from the state-funded Innovation Works— got a call from Consol Energy, a Pennsylvania energy company with natural-gas interests.
TRYING DESALINATION TECHNOLOGY ON PRODUCED WATER
Consol executives were wondering if Epiphany’s desalination technology might work on produced water in the Marcellus Shale.
“They gave us some funding, and we built a small, proof-of-concept prototype and immediately deployed it on a well pad for real-world testing” Joseph said. It was just big enough to handle the produced water from a single gas well, about 25 barrels a day (b/d).
Epiphany engineers lived in an RV at a Consol well pad and went through 10 prototype iterations. The end result was an ultracompact, mechanical vapor recompression (MVR) crystallizer that can turn any source of produced water into clean water and dry salt.
Starting small enabled the company to make mistakes and changes without running up a big bill. “Our mistakes cost us tens of thousands, rather than tens of millions. This allowed us to progress through several very rapid iterations while we learned from mistakes that put many less-nimble competitors out of business,” Joseph said.
The tiny, 25 b/d unit was developed not only as a proof of concept, but also a complete distillation plant in a box. “This is a big deal for the industry because the compact technology enables revenue recovery at thousands of older, less profitable, but still operating well pads throughout the U.S.,” explained Joseph.
In addition to the oil and gas industry, these units are useful in a variety of industrial wastewater treatment applications. For example, a fleet of them is currently being deployed for use by the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) at snowplow and deicing stations in mountain and rural areas where there is no hookup to local wastewater-treatment plants and where their compact size is an advantage.
“The plows come back packed with snow, ice, grit and sand,” said Theresa Santangelo, CDOT’s project manager. “All that flows into the drains.” Some units will be fixed and some mobile. All will have concentrating solar mirrors to reduce energy costs.
“We ran a pilot at our Fairplay facility, and the results were phenomenal,” Santangelo said. “The water that comes out of this thing is pure distilled water.” The waste stream also mimicked the deicer CDOT uses, so it will be used on highways. Santangelo said CDOT may use as many as 40 units.
CONNECTING UNITS LIKE LEGO BLOCKS
In moving from the smaller unit to something that could be deployed on or near larger modern, well pads, Epiphany’s next step was not just a larger version, but one that could be connected to other units to create a modular smart-treatment system that can be configured to process anywhere from 500 to more than 10,000 b/d. “Each module is a complete distillation unit that can be linked to as many additional modules as the customer needs for the job. It is like connecting Legos,” Joseph said.
Epiphany’s larger systems are comprised of multiple 250 b/d modules, with each module taking up about eight-by-eight-by-ten feet and weighing around 10,000 pounds. The dimensions are dictated by what can be carried by a forklift and hauled by a truck on a flatbed. This allows Epiphany to mass-produce the modules and ship them assembled.
“We want to deliver a product that was already completely assembled back in the plant,” Joseph said. “When we deliver, all that needs to be done is to hook it up, press the button and start making water.” A basic, two-module plant could fit in two parking-lot spaces. Like all Epiphany systems, these modules are designed to be a total integrated solution with fully automated controls and remote monitoring and control capabilities.
Additional units can be added to reach a production volume of more than 10,000 b/d, but the company says a distributed network of several smaller systems is a superior business model for most applications. The aim is to provide a treatment system that can serve an area up to 15 miles around, cutting transportation costs by as much as 90 percent.
Epiphany’s first two-module plants were proposed to be adjacent the Coudersport Area Municipal Authority sewage plant on the Allegheny River about 170 miles northeast of Pittsburgh. The unit was to have treated produced water, which would then be run through the sewage-treatment plant and into the river.
Facing protests from a Native American group concerned generally with the Marcellus industry’s conduct near their land, the $1-million project was put on indefinite hold in April 2018. “Though our project was expressly targeted to bolster environmental protection, the overall initiative became too controversial,” Joseph said.
Epiphany is now negotiating with three oil companies to find a new home for the Coudersport units.
NEW APPROACH TO WATER TREATMENT
Epiphany’s distributed strategy stands in contrast to the approach toward produced water treatment of Antero Resources Corp., an operator in the Marcellus and Utica shales. Antero hired Veolia Water Technologies to build a centralized advanced wastewater treatment plant in Dodge County, W.Va., that can handle 60,000 b/d of produced water. The cost of the plant was initially put at $275 million.
“They need to transport water to the plant through either pipelines or by truck,” Joseph said. “This can be the most expensive part of managing water.”
At $275 million, the Antero plant cost per b/d capacity comes to nearly $4,600. Each Epiphany 250-bd module has a retail price of about $500,000 with a b/d capacity cost of $2,000, Joseph said.
“The reason we can do that is because it is like the Model-T business model, an assembly line,” Joseph said. “We spent six years designing not only the equipment, but the equipment to manufacture it.”
“One of the revolutionary advantages to our modular approach is that the size is totally flexible. You can add or remove modules as needed, or simply reallocate them to other locations where they are needed,” Joseph said. “The conventional approach uses custom-engineered distillation plants ranging from 10,000 to 100,000 b/d permanently installed in a single location. That old-fashioned, all-or-nothing mentality does not fit well with the direction the industry is progressing.”
Additionally, “The old approach says you have to build larger plants to get economies of scale, but thanks to modern automation, remote monitoring and careful thermodynamics design, we can easily operate more cost effectively than the bigger plants,” he said.
OLD CONCEPT, NEW TECHNOLOGY
The technology is a standard distillation process, “the concept is not new,” Joseph said, but Epiphany designed technology to deal with the unique challenges of handling shale water. In particular, the extreme variations in salt content, acidity and boiling point have proven to be challenges.
“Conventional approaches result in crystallization issues and salt scaling on the heat exchangers and pipes. These were the first issues we needed to overcome.” Joseph said. Next, the high heat, acid and chlorides can also pose corrosion problems. “These were big challenges for us,” Joseph said. “We benefited from starting small, for when we made a mistake it cost us a fraction of what it would have for a larger plant to correct.”
For example, initially Epiphany made a number of components from stainless steel. The engineers learned quickly that the metal didn’t hold up when parts that would last for decades in other environments were failing in weeks or months under these conditions.
The company started working with manufacturers and found that bronze could be substituted in some places, as could a variety of specialty plastics in other places. “For example, we use a glass-filled Teflon nozzle,” Joseph said. “That nozzle may erode a bit, but it will still be there when we are dead and gone.” The target life for an Epiphany module is 20 years.
To get produced water to boil can require temperatures of up to 240 degrees Fahrenheit. The Epiphany process uses mechanical vapor recompression, which increases distillation efficiency, capturing the heat of vaporization and putting it back into the system. Other proprietary design features eliminate scale formation and reduce corrosion.
“From an energy standpoint, the design allows us to process with a huge reduction in fuel usage,” Joseph said. “When the Marcellus started booming, the costs didn’t matter. But now as they get into production mode, cost is everything.”
Another adjustment was taking the heat exchanger usually located in the boiling chamber and placing it outside the vessel. Left in the chamber with produced water, it will “scale up with residue in a matter of hours, and require constant maintenance,” Joseph said.
The produced water is circulated through the heat exchanger and then misted into the boiling chamber, so that the residual salts fall gently to the bottom where they are gathered for reuse. Meanwhile, the clean-water vapor is pulled off the top and condensed into a holding tank of pure, distilled water.
FROM PRODUCED WATER TO CLEAN ENOUGH TO DRINK
A trained mechanical engineer, Joseph’s work at the Florida State University Fluid Mechanics Research Laboratory, in Tallahassee, Fla., and at NASA’s Ames Research Center, in Mountain View, Calif., came in handy. At Ames, he worked on rocket-nozzle design.
The products of the process are water clean enough to drink, with less than 500 parts per million dissolved solids (ppm), often below 200 ppm. “It is drinkable. We regularly drink it after running it through a carbon filter to get rid of trace VOCs [volatile organic compounds],” Joseph said. If not reused, the water is clean enough to discharge into a sewage-treatment plant.
The salts, depending upon their purity, can be used for other industries, such as road salt, or they can be sent to disposal.
How the system runs and is managed will, however, vary from shale play to shale play. “The first question we ask is what is in the water,” Joseph said. “The next question is what does an operator want to do with the treated products?”
“Do you want the water back for fracking, disposal, injection?” Joseph said. Similarly, are the salts to be “a usable byproduct” or concentrated in a brine for disposal?
“If you use it for road salt, there are metals that have to be removed with pretreatment,” Joseph said. In the Marcellus Shale, the produced water often contains some radioactive elements that must be removed. “If we were to allow even a tiny bit of radium to get into the salt, we would have to scrap tons of material,” he said.
Water quality can have other impacts on the operation and management of the system. “How salty the water is in the first place dictates how much you can concentrate it,” Joseph said. The Marcellus is very salty, but the produced water in the Southwest less so, he said.
BYPRODUCT: ROAD SALT
While the salt is less of a challenge in the Southwest, there is also little secondary market for the salt in the region. Dealing with the salt is more difficult in the Marcellus, but there is a market for road salt.
“Our goal is to reduce waste by 80 percent or more. If we can’t do that, we shouldn’t be there,” Joseph said. In the Marcellus, the water has salt levels of 200,000 to 300,000 ppm. To get to that target, reduction has to be taken all the way to salt. “That gives you a substantial reduction,” he said.
The treatment costs will vary with these challenges. “The market in the Marcellus can bear higher prices, and the cost of treatment can be $6 a barrel,” Joseph said. A chunk of that, however, is trucking, and Epiphany aims to cut that portion of the price tag
“If I proposed $6 a barrel in Texas, I’d be laughed out of the room. But in Texas, you don’t need pretreatment for heavy metals, so the price can be below $2 a barrel.”
“In Texas, disposal isn’t the hard part. Sourcing new water is the hard part. So, the more we can close the loop and use the same water over and over, the more sustainable it is and addresses a limitation the industry is dealing with,” Joseph said.
STILL WORKING IN THIRD WORLD
Epiphany is continuing its work with non-profits, such as Rotary International, to deliver drinking-water desalinization units to the developing world. Its E3H units are powered by concentration solar technology, like the CDOT modules, and can provide up to 500 gallons a day of potable water from brackish seawater or brackish groundwater—enough to supply 250 people.
Working in the shale plays, however, has helped with technological innovation and given the company another mission.
“At our core, we are humanitarians and environmentalists. We want to make this sustainable, but the oil industry has to make money and we want to save them money,” Joseph said. “The industry is starting to recognize that we provide a cost-saving solution that is also sustainable for the environment, and supports their long-term needs so there is no reason for them not to work with us.”
Authored by Mark Jaffe