Khalifa University Team Develops New Framework for Sustainable Wastewater Management in the Petroleum Sector

September 25, 2023

Framework offers a clear roadmap for effective implementation in wastewater management for the oil and gas industry.


A team of researchers from Khalifa University has provided a robust life cycle assessment (LCA) framework tailored for the petroleum sector, focusing their attention on the environmental ramifications stemming from petroleum wastewater.


The team, led by Dr. Mutasem El Fadel, Chair of the Department of Civil Infrastructure and Environmental Engineering, includes Huda Majid Al Zarkani, PhD student, and Prof. Toufic Mezher, Professor of Industrial and Systems Engineering, developed their framework to address the pressing need for an integrated and holistic approach to managing wastewater in the petroleum sector. They published their results in the Journal of Cleaner Production, a top 1% journal with focus on issues concerning sustainability.


Their framework concentrates on effective produced water treatment methods and management to diminish environmental repercussions. It has six phases: relevant data collection; design of experiment to identify relationships between input parameters and outcomes; LCA application; regression model implementation; multi-criteria decision analysis; and economic attractiveness assessment. The team’s framework uses life cycle cost analysis and decision matrix techniques which consider both environmental and economic impacts.


The oil and gas industry has held its position as a pivotal driver of global energy, economic growth and progress since its emergence in the late 1850s. Even with the modern need to transition to a carbon-neutral future, oil and gas is likely to stay relevant for decades to come. Hence, the petroleum sector’s need for effective water management remains critical.


The oil industry upstream and downstream operations produce vast amounts of water waste: During the exploration and production phase, over 80 percent of the waste generated is wastewater. This spikes to 95 percent in older oilfields. A significant portion of this wastewater stems from produced water, a byproduct of oil and gas extraction, rich in harmful inorganic and organic substances. Wastewater in downstream operations is equally challenging.


“Petroleum refineries and petrochemical plants are key players in downstream operations and yield industrial byproducts during their processes,” the research team stated. “The nature and composition of these residues hinge on both technological and crude oil variances. With water being a primary resource for numerous refinery processes, it’s not surprising that 80 to 90 percent of supplied water exits as wastewater. Given the hazardous nature of these effluents, their impact on health and ecosystems, particularly aquatic ones, can be profound.”


Selecting the appropriate waste management strategy is paramount. A holistic approach, such as the LCA, has gained traction in evaluating environmental footprints over product or service life cycles, and while LCA studies abound in wastewater and solid waste domains, the research team found that the petroleum sector remains underrepresented.


The KU team’s research delivers a comprehensive analysis of the LCA literature related to petroleum waste, emphasizing treatment methodologies, efficiency, energy utilization, and environmental implications.


“Our research also explored the various stages of life cycle assessment, pinpointing methodological voids,” the research team stated. “Among these gaps were the underrepresentation of produced water management, the absence of uncertainty evaluations, and the need for region-specific characterization factors. To address these shortcomings, we suggested a structured LCA-based framework. This emphasizes the importance of integrated produced water into future studies, meeting regulatory standards, and enhancing institutional capabilities.”


The research team noted that while traditional methods to treat wastewater like enhanced oil recovery are effective, they possess a significant environmental footprint. Recent techniques, like electrical heating and magnetic field, warrant further exploration. 


The team also highlighted the need to acknowledge the importance of regulatory compliance and institutional robustness in the successful deployment of any framework. 


Jade Sterling
Science Writer
25 September 2023