At first glance, blood and mud have absolutely nothing in common; one is a lifeline for humans and animals, comprised of cells and plasma, while the other is a mixture of dirt and water, ideal for Jeeps on a backcountry road. But as unrelated as these two substances seem, the same technological concept can be employed to separate their microscopic ingredients.
For blood, cell separation is an important first step for clinical diagnostics. For mud, separation is crucial to removing solids and contaminants from produced water in oil & gas applications. The technology that makes both possible is called microclarification, and its journey from blood to mud played out in the confines of labs at GE Global Research in Niskayuna, NY.
Back in 2012, Chemist/Data Scientist Jason Nichols and Biomedical Engineer Christopher Puleo were working on a project for GE Healthcare focused on low volume blood collection using paper-based technologies. Chris was also working on another team that had begun experimenting with devices capable of cell separation from high volume blood samples, which could not be done practically with GE’s current paper-based technology. The end result was a device that uses gravity to settle out blood cells, leaving plasma (non-cell) components behind.
Gravity sedimentation is typically not a practical solution for blood separation because, although blood cells left in a tube will eventually settle, it will take days for them to do so. This has led to the almost universal use of centrifugation, a method that is difficult to automate and one that remains a bottle-neck step in clinical workflows. The small device developed at Global Research uses gravity sedimentation but enables blood cells to be trapped after travelling only hundreds of microns under the force of gravity.
To use it, a small amount of blood is loaded into the device and passed through a microchannel where gravity separates the blood cells from the plasma, placing each into its own collection chamber. Previous attempts to miniaturize blood separation took hours to analyze milliliters of blood; Chris’s device achieves the same outcome in less than a minute (details can be found in this recently published article in the peer-reviewed journal, Lab on a Chip.)
“The technology isn’t new, but by optimizing trajectories and shortening the distance the blood cells fall, we were able to significantly reduce the time it takes to crash the cells out,” said Chris.
While working through the idea, Chris got talking to Jason, his co-worker on the low volume blood collection project, and two other co-workers, Craig Galligan and Jason Davis. “We were all talking about our projects and I told them about this awesome little device I was working on,” said Chris. “We jokingly agreed that it could be beneficial to our shared hobby of amateur beer brewing.”
“The four of us started talking more seriously about the technology’s feasibility in GE’s Water business, specifically for produced water,” said Jason, who was also working on a Global Research project for GE’s Water & Process Technologies business. “It was so crazy that it wasn’t crazy,” he said.
Every year the US oil & gas industry generates more than 800 billion gallons of produced water as a byproduct of oil and gas development. This water contains contaminants such as salts, oil, and mud. The specific makeup depends upon the geographic location, the type of oil or gas being produced, and the type of geological formation.
Produced water is largely unfit for reuse and must be disposed of in centrally-located underground injection wells. For those who choose to treat their produced water for reuse, current technology has a large footprint and is often more expensive than just purchasing fresh, clean water. It is estimated that just 10% of produced water is treated for reuse.
“There’s nothing cheaper than gravity,” said Jason, “And with all the focus on California’s drought and just the overall heightened sense of awareness surrounding water reuse we thought it was a great time to explore microclarification in produced water applications.”
So Jason and Chris jumped right in, taking on their first and largest challenge… scaling up the technology.
“Chris’s device processes milliliters of blood in a single use device, but for produced water you’re talking about continuously processing millions of gallons of water per day,” said Jason. “We pulled in additional resources to help us with our first step, a simplification exercise to figure out the minimum components needed, and worked methodically to build a small-scale prototype.”
Employing the same technological innovations as Chris’s blood microclarification device, Jason’s initial produced water prototype processed 100 milliliters of water per minute in an automated continuous process.
“Once we found we could make it work we shifted our focus to building a minimum repeat unit, a 1 gallon per minute device, that can be used as a standalone demonstration unit or married with identical devices to increase flow and processing capabilities,” said Jason. “We are working to build these units for our first commercial pilot in 2016.”
While tweaks and upgrades are being made daily, GE’s new microclarification technology stands to revolutionize the way the oil and gas industry handles produced water. It’s not only two to five times cheaper than existing technology, but it is 1/10th the size, lightweight, and mobile. This will open up new possibilities for oil & gas companies operating in remote locations.
It’s hard to imagine that a conversation about work and a shared love for beer could spark such an impactful transfer of technology, but amazingly, it did. So cheers to Chris and Jason, and here’s hoping for more collaboration among GE’s brightest minds.