Canada houses 173 billion barrels of oil in a form supremely difficult to access. Extracting crude from a thick peanut-butter-like substance called oil sands takes time, costs money, uses excessive amounts of water and produces large amounts of CO2. General Electric (GE) Global Research, Niskayuna, N.Y., is taking on the oil sands with naturally occurring rocks called zeolites identified by the University of Alberta. Zeolites have molecular-sized pores, which allow small molecules in and keep large ones out. GE scientists want to use nanotechnology to form these zeolites into membranes that can be used for high temperature gas separation of oil and the heated water and solvent mixture injected into sands to mobilize the oil.
The same membranes can be used to filter contaminated water. GE has already developed carbon capture technology for coal gasification plants and water filtration technologies that allow the Great Divide Oil Sands Partnership in Alberta to recycle 98 percent of water used in extraction.