Each time regulatory agencies initiate more stringent environmental controls, treatment technologies are refined to meet the updated standards. Centrifuges and hydrocyclones are, by and large, producing satisfactory effluents for meeting current quality requirements for the offshore petroleum industries. The European standard for effluent from onshore petroleum activities, however, requires less than 5 mg/l total hydrocarbons (HC) and less than 10 mg/l suspended solids. Such low concentrations are out of reach for the above classical separation processes.

The amount of produced water in the North Sea is projected to increase by a factor of 6 from 1990 to the year 2000; from 16 to 90 million cubic meters each year. Produced water is the predominant source for oil discharges. The synergistic effects of chemicals, oil and dissolved components in the produced water effluent are given increased attention, with expectations of tougher effluent criteria.

Microfiltration (MF) and ultrafiltration (UF) pilot trials with produced water from the Snorre field in the North Sea showed that UF, but not MF, could meet more stringent effluent standards for total HC, suspended solids and dissolved constituents. Total HC in the produced water was typically 50 mg/l and was reduced to 2 mg/l in the UF permeate (96% removal). The aromatics benzene, toluene and xylene (BTX) were similarly reduced by 54% and the heavy metals copper (Cu) and zinc (Zn) by 95%.

UF trials were performed with organic tubular membranes with typical transmembrane pressures between 6 and 10 bars. The feed velocities through the tubes were between 2 and 4 m/s. Flux varied from 140 to 550 l/m2/h (lmh) at a produced water temperature of 60°C and membrane molecular weight cut-off between 100,000 and 200,000 daltons.

By recirculating UF retentate as membrane feed, a volume reduction (VR) of 24 was obtained in the trials; i.e., 96% permeate recovery. The limited volume of produced water available in the feed tank negated further volume reduction. Full-scale design is based on permeate recovery of 99%.

No irreversible fouling of the membrane surface was experienced. The cleanwater flux was restored after chemical cleaning. The alkaline detergent Ultrasil 11 was chosen as the optimal cleaning agent.

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