Therefore, alongside manufacturing of petroleum products, producers have always sought to develop approaches for curbing contamination of the environment. To that effect, Iran’s Research Institute of Petroleum Industry (RIPI) has taken measures. This knowledge-based institute, which specializes in developing technologies required for the upstream and downstream sectors, does not ignore environmental issues and seeks scientific methods for minimizing the environmental pollution resulted from exploration, extraction and production.
Contrary to the imagination of producing countries neighboring Iran or developed countries, Iran has found solutions to its environmental challenges pertaining to its petroleum industry. The European Association for Green Management recognized one of Iran’s projects as the best one ever developed by Iran.
In order to get further familiar with RIPI’s environmental activities, “Iran Petroleum” has conducted an interview with Ebrahim Alaei, director of environment and biotechnology research center of RIPI.
Q: One of the most important environmental activities of RIPI is wastes management. Would you please explain further in this regard?
A: As far as the major environmental issues of National Iranian Oil Company (NIOC) are concerned several aspects which are being focused upon are of importance. Management of water and industrial wastes is among them. Given limited water resources, it is necessary to avoid wasting water and instead recycle wastes. It means that we need to reduce water extraction, and rather than that focus on water consumption management. Another issue of importance here is the management of carbon and greenhouse gas emissions and the ensuing warming. It is of course a global issue which was discussed at a conference in Paris. Participants at the conference pledged to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in line with obligations they agreed upon. Therefore, the issue of management of carbon and emission of greenhouse gases must be seriously dealt with.
Another important issue is the production of wastes and their management. On the issue of wastes, there are three major sectors in the petroleum industry. [One of them is] the upstream sector which covers exploration and recovery of oil and gas from reservoirs. Exploration activities and extraction are carried out through drilling numerous wells and that causes considerable volumes of waste. The bulk of wastes that need to be managed and treated are released from this sector’s activities. Therefore, wastes released during drilling and after that are of high significance. Alongside wells, there is always plenty of drilling cuts or mud. Usually some holes are dug near these wells in order to hold wastes. Over recent years, national and international regulations have brought about requirements for the wastes management and minimization.
As the first step, there must be mechanisms in drilling mud process in order to minimize mud during production. In the second step, we have to minimize its possible poisonous impacts on the environment based on the physical and chemical properties of the waste and its harmful compounds.
Q: Have you implemented any projects in this regard?
A: Since a number of our colleagues are active in the oil biotechnology sector they have carried out various research projects on how to benefit from the potential of microorganisms for reducing or eliminating the impacts of pollutants on the environment. The necessary technical knowhow has been presented to be applied to industrial and operating areas. The requirement for the application of developed technologies would be to identify microorganisms in every drilling area and hole and we suggest bioremediation procedure for these sectors based on ecological and geographical conditions.
Q: Has this project been implemented in operating areas?
A: These biotechnologies have been implemented in several operating and industrial areas, including some Persian Gulf islands in the south of the country. Another certain case was in the drilling of wells in Khangiran area in eastern Iran. For the first time, we developed biopile process by using domestic potentialities and facilities and decontaminated 10,000 tons of polluted drilling mud whose poisonous substances included oil and other organic materials by using the microorganism capacity of the area. Environmental processes are normally too long, but we managed to fully decontaminate the soil within five months by selecting an appropriate technology. It is noteworthy that this technology is being used and implemented for the first time in the country.
Q: Would you please explain further about the function of this process?
A: Bioremediation process is such that the level of contamination is reduced from high to lower degrees with the help of microorganisms through a three to four-month period. In order to fully eliminate contamination, we apply phytoremediation as a complementary process. When soil pollution falls to below 4 or 5 percent, some certain species are grown from an area that could fully combat pollutants and fully eliminate contamination.
By applying these two methods, which result from biotechnologies, two important targets are met. First, contamination is fully eliminated. That would happen in two steps; in the first step, it is done by microorganism and in the following step when the contamination level falls below four percent local nutrient elements are engaged. Second, since phytoremediation is applied, the area which was supposed to be landfill site is now transformed into green space. That is to say, besides cleansing, an ecosystem has also been created to help improve conditions in the area. These processes are also effective with regard to oil slicks generated by release of substances. I have to recall that in addition to these methods, there were other processes like solidification. In the process of solidification, the waste is turned into solid blocks with a series of additives that include special cement and costly silicate glue. Contaminants are confined within these blocks are transferred into garbage dump sites known as landfill. However, this method has numerous problems and is costly. Furthermore, only contaminants confined in the block are released and after a 10 to 15-year period, in case the landfill has no control it will be released into the environment again.
Q: Where can this process be implemented?
A: In Iran, there are thousands of kilometers of oil transmission pipelines that carry oil from origin points to refineries. Some of these transmission pipelines are 50 to 60 years old and are decrepit and exposed to natural disasters. Landslides and other natural disasters like earthquake and floods have damaged these pipelines and subsequently oil slicks leak into the surroundings. Therefore, the main element of the environment, which is soil, is contaminated. Phytoremediation is also applied to these environments. Also for the first time, we have conducted phytoremediation on the contaminants produced from wastes stockpiled in Siri Island during the last 20 years.
Q: In Siri Island, what have you done for the removal of wastes?
A: Sometimes in oil storage tanks, certain sludge or sediments are gathered which need to be taken out of the reservoir and stored in a depot. In Siri Island, there was a spot for the stockpiling of contaminant sludge, oil wastes and contaminated soil. Two procedures were conducted in this regard: First, some of this oil sludge whose hydrocarbon content was more than 50 percent was separated. We also cleansed 4,000 tons of contaminated soil through another process known as land farming. Moreover, by using this procedure, another project is currently under way in Gavzard area of Gachsaran. There is oil waste in this area and we had to apply land farming in a different form. The final stage of elimination of contaminants is done with the help of plants and we have to apply methods of growth like irrigation in order to preserve the plants. This job was done with the help of a new unmanned system.
Q: Have you had any activities in the field of cleansing water contaminations?
A: A number of helpful technologies have been developed in this sector. Soil vapor extraction (SVE) is a physical treatment process for in situ remediation of volatile contaminants in vadose zone (unsaturated) soils. (It is based on mass transfer of contaminant from the solid (sorbed) and liquid (aqueous or non-aqueous) phases into the gas phase, with subsequent collection of the gas phase contamination at extraction wells. The soil vapor extraction remediation technology uses vacuum blowers and extraction wells to induce gas flow through the subsurface, collecting contaminated soil vapor, which is subsequently treated aboveground.)
In this case, we can extract the contamination in the form of vapor and turn it into biomass with the help of biofilteration and use of certain microorganisms. (A variety of treatment techniques are available for aboveground treatment (EPA, 2006) and include thermal destruction (e.g., direct flame thermal oxidation, catalytic oxidizers), adsorption (e.g., granular activated carbon, zeolites, polymers), biofiltration, non-thermal plasma destruction, photolytic/photocatalytic destruction, membrane separation, gas absorption, and vapor condensation. The most commonly applied aboveground treatment technologies are thermal oxidation and granular activated carbon adsorption. The selection of a particular aboveground treatment technology depends on the contaminant, concentrations in the offgas, throughput, and economic considerations.) Biomasses are not poisonous or harmful and they can even act as fertilizer if they are recycled into the environment. In this technology, contaminants of underground water are released into air through several stages before being transformed into a biomass through biofiltration technique. This project was such significant that the European Association for Green Management selected it as the best environmental project in the country in the Iranian calendar year 1394 (which ended March 2016).
Q: Do you have any plans for exporting this technology to other countries?
A: These activities are done on an industrial scale and are no pilot. They have been done at national level. Some neighboring countries also asked us to implement such a project for them. For instance, a company in Kazakhstan was very eager to cooperate with us in this sector and has contacted us, too. This company produces mineral adsorbents and after observing our techniques they realized that this process rather than absorbing contamination, microorganisms are used for eliminating contaminants and that is why they want to use our knowhow. Furthermore, Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) countries are interested in this technology. An Anglo-Spanish company has also visited our projects. They first thought that we are merely consumers, but they found out that we have gone beyond mere consumption and they expressed interest in using our technologies in other oil-rich countries, too.
Q: What have you done for the treatment of urban wastes?
A: For urban wastes, we have developed a process for compost conversion. Siri Island has been envisaged as the hub for this purpose. The proposal regarding urban wastes was to gather them completely because the islands are poor in soil. It was our proposal to establish a factory there. Of course, this project needs heavy financing; therefore, we are waiting for the endorsement of talks. In case this project is implemented, we will also consider procedures for urban wastes.
However, we have good projects in the sector of management of urban and industrial wastes. The water obtained from wastewater treatment projects has certain properties and could be released into the environment. This is part of the project. Suspended materials are separated from the treatment facility. There is also some sort of inactive sludge which is voluminous.
To resolve this problem, we have proposed a process through which the wastes from the treatment facility are transformed into substances of high value in complementary procedures. The wastes are first dewatered and transformed into solid. Then, a series of nutrients are added to it and in the end a valuable fertilizer is produced to be used for green space. We carried out this project at the RIPI and the wastes are currently being solidified.
By Shiva Saeedi
Courtesy of Iran Petroleum Monthly