Cleaner, safer oil

Local inventor credits team for patented process

EVANSTON — Local inventor Jeff Morris points squarely to teamwork and luck for his invention that is rapidly gaining traction. 

Morris, an Evanston resident who has worked for Anschutz Exploration since 1999, is the inventor of a device that removes hydrogen sulfide (H2S) from sour oil and sour water (crude oil and production water) using only water and air. His device is designed to be used in the field so that the dangers of transporting sour oil are reduced or eliminated.

The “Sour to Sweet” (or S2S) invention’s fact sheet describes the process as removing hydrogen sulfide and sometimes even sulfur, cutting costs, producing no chemical residue and increasing the value of the treated oil — a sweet combination of benefits indeed.

In 2011, Morris was working for Anschutz Exploration as a consultant. As he had specialized in hydrogen sulfide for many years, Morris was asked to come up with a solution for removing hydrogen sulfide in the field. Anschutz Exploration was working with a field in which the oil had a high concentration of hydrogen sulfide, which made it dangerous and expensive to move to a refinery where it could be cleaned. 

Morris was skeptical when his employers proposed the problem, and he said at first that he thought there wasn’t an answer to their conundrum. However, the Anschutz team was persistent, so Morris continued to think about it. 

A spark of inspiration hit, prompted by the right questions and circumstances. 

“One night, I thought of an idea and drove out to the site and tested it, and it worked,” Morris said. 

That night set in motion a cascade of patents and events, to the point that Morris’ invention now has patents in 42 countries — and the project, still in the research and development phase, continues to expand. 

Among other things, one of the goals is to make sure that the hydrogen sulfide removal is cost-effective, efficient and safe — without removing anything else that reduces the value or makeup of the oil. Morris said that when he first created the invention, the only other processes that were available removed hydrocarbons from the oil. What his invention does is that it uses water and air to remove hydrogen sulfide and carbon dioxide while leaving everything else intact. 

Some of what is currently being investigated is what batch sizes (such as a range of 200-200,000 barrels) are feasible and economical to treat. Overall, Morris says the project still has a long way to go, but it has come a long way since 2011. But he said the most important part of this has been the teamwork. 

“On something this complex, you have to have support, and it can’t be just a one-man inventor on things like this. It wouldn’t work. Because more than half of the things I come up with are wrong, and they have to be tested,” Morris said. “... It’s not like an inventor inventing, say, a guitar pick. The work just started when we got the first patent. It was just the core idea.” 

When asked about the process of inventing, Morris commented that big ideas are most often happened upon.

“The way these things happen historically is people just wander into it,” he said. “… I don’t think someone can say, ‘I want to be an inventor,’ and just go to inventing things. The most important ideas are kind of once-in-a-lifetime deals.”

Another big part of the process is great teamwork. Morris said that, although his name is on all of the patents, he is rightly listed as “co-inventor” on many because it is not only his work. There are many people at Anschutz who are involved, and the company has invested hugely in the project. Morris has even had the opportunity to collaborate on the project with his son, Jonathan, a petroleum engineer. 

He pointed out that with a project of this scale, so many pieces to the puzzle have to come together, including legal, managerial and engineering teams.

“People ask me, ‘Are you proud of having a patent now?’” Morris said. “And I say no. I’m proud of being on a team to have a patent and working for a company that’s ethically and environmentally responsible — yeah, I’m proud of that.”

Morris noted that the invention’s impact on Evanston’s economy may not be huge — at least for now. Carter Creek and Whitney Canyon already have their own “sour facilities” that handle their own oil processing. However, Morris said, Evanston has a wide assortment of people who know a lot about hydrogen sulfide and the oil business, so a manufacturing company could have a good knowledge base and ready infrastructure to draw on.

Reflecting on the whole process as it has come about so far, Morris reiterated that it has been all about teamwork, timing and being in the right environment. 

“The first time they requested that I solve the problem, if they had taken my word for it that it wasn’t possible to do in the field economically, then that would have been the end of it, but they were persistent in asking me to solve the problem,” Morris said. “And they put me in a place and provided the resources for it.”

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