In search of clean water

Published: 24 October 2022

Text: Newslab

Photo: Angelique Culvin Riccot

"By combining traditional fields of expertise in new ways, you can find solutions to many problems," says the company's leader, Helene Ree Ruden.

"In Norway, we burn the same amount of waste all year round, but it's only in winter that we need all the energy from incineration. The surplus in summer is not used," says Helene Ree Ruden. She is the leader of the company Ruden AS, located in Oslo Science Park.

"We don't belong anywhere else but in Oslo Science Park, but you have to continue building because we'll soon need larger offices to accommodate more people," says Helene Ruden with a smile.

The company is divided into three parts: Ruden Water, Ruden Energy, and Ruden Geo Services, but they all have the same starting point: to use oil knowledge to solve societal problems, preferably using water. One of the problems has been dealing with excess energy at an incineration plant in Tromsø.

"Simply put, we create shallow reservoirs that we fracture so that the water from waste incineration can stay there until we need the energy in winter when it is sent to district heating systems. It's like using the ground as a battery," explains Ruden.

It was this solution that allowed the small company Ruden AS to step onto the stage in Stavanger in August earlier this year and receive the prestigious ONS SME Award. The award, presented every other year by the ONS Foundation, goes to a small company the jury believes has a significant impact on greener energy development. Ruden says they were very surprised.

"We thought they nominated us to show that they think green, but none of us expected to win the oil industry's innovation award."

Oil and water

It's not just about energy storage that can find answers through old oil knowledge; for the other part of the company, Ruden Water, as the name suggests, it focuses on drinking water.

Water and oil are not so different; in fact, they have quite a similar identity, according to Ruden, who refers to her company as "oil's poor cousin."

There is a family connection within the company as well. It was Helene's father, Fridjov Ruden, who founded Ruden AS in 2007. Helene joined to bring the ideas to life, and together they began dusting off old oil data in search of clean water.

"For over 60 years, we have been searching for oil worldwide; every corner of the globe has been mapped for oil. Meanwhile, to find water, we still, in a way, use a small stick."

That's what gave them the idea: If the entire world is mapped for oil, it must also be mapped for water because where there is oil, there is water.

"Even where there is no oil, there is water; water is everywhere," says Ruden, and thus they began.

It's no coincidence that oil technology has inspired Helene Ruden to find water. As the daughter of two geologists, one entering the oil industry and the other the water industry, it was natural for Helene to try to bring the two together. After all, she herself, in a way, came into being through such a merger, and she knew it was possible.

Reuse of oil reports

Deep beneath the ground, there are reservoirs of water, called "aquifers": rocks filled with groundwater, water untouched by human hands or even animal carcasses.

"Oil and water have quite a similar identity," explains Ruden. "In oil drilling reports, they need to determine whether it's oil or water in the well. We read reports stating that 'the well is dry,' but it's not dry, it's actually full of water."

Unlike oil, groundwater doesn't run out. Every time it rains, the water seeps into the ground, flows through cracks, and finds its way back into the reservoirs.

In 2007, Ruden discovered large aquifers in Tanzania that continue to provide water to 1.2 million people, thanks to their efforts. Now it's Somalia's turn. In August, NTB reported that the country was experiencing the worst drought in 40 years, but just like a dry oil well, it doesn't mean there is no water.

"No matter how dry it is on the surface, there is water deeper underground. It's just a matter of having the resources to find and manage it. While a typical water well drills 200-300 meters, the technology from the oil industry can explore several kilometers beneath the Earth's crust," explains Ruden.

Of course, the quality of the water they find in oil wells varies, but that's where those dusty oil reports come in handy. They contain information that allows them to calculate the water quality, meter by meter, in every "dry" well.

Some of the water in the wells is too salty, so they leave it behind, while other formations contain excellent drinking water. This is particularly valuable in a country like Somalia, where a famine is looming due to the drought.

Ruden AS quenches thirst with the help of dry oil wells: "We read reports stating that 'the well is dry,' but it's not dry, it's actually full of water," says the company's leader, Helene Ruden.

The precious resource

"There are two reasons why we chose Somalia: firstly, they need water the most, and secondly, the country has been extensively surveyed for oil in the past. It's an excellent starting point for finding abundant and deep water."

But even though there is a lot of water in the country, it's not as simple as pumping it up and releasing it.

"In a way, it's harder to find water than oil because once you've found it, you have to agree on who will manage it," Ruden explains.

It hasn't been easy. There are no public regulations determining who owns this precious natural resource, how it should be distributed, whether it should have a cost, and who should take care of it.

"It hasn't been easy to be a small Norwegian company in this context, and it has been a process that has required all the endurance and patience we could muster. But in the end, we have succeeded beyond all expectations," says Ruden.

To handle significant water reserves, one must obtain permits. Somalia may be one of the most challenging countries of all, with many conflicts.

After three years, they finally succeeded. Following a long-awaited meeting with the country's oil minister, the project could truly begin.

The popular shift

Since receiving the ONS award, there has been no shortage of requests from people in the oil sector who want to transfer their expertise to Ruden AS and the "water sector."

"We don't have a chance to match oil salaries, but people still want to be part of the green shift. Some have even offered to work for free."

It's not just in the stack of applications that Ruden finds people who want to be part of the green shift. She talks about enthusiastic investors and, above all, companies willing to share their oil licenses without charge.

"Without free oil licenses, the path to water would have been long. Although we have open access to oil data in Norway, oil data is usually owned by private oil companies, and one has to pay a fortune to access them," explains Ruden.

Due to the green trend that creates enthusiasm for contributing to a greener world, Ruden eventually obtained a license from one of the world's largest oil companies, Schlumberger.

In August, Ruden AS won the prestigious ONS SME Award: "A clear indication of the green shift," says the company's leader, Helene Ruden.

A slightly greener world

Today, Ruden AS has 25 employees, most of whom come from the oil sector.

"Everyone working with us is extremely close to the problems we solve. They talk to the local population, see the water come up from the ground; everyone contributes to making a difference."

By mixing a dash of idealism with science, Ruden AS continuously finds innovative solutions, and the company's leader encourages others to do the same:

"By combining traditional fields of expertise in new ways, you can find solutions to many problems. Start by finding someone who is good at what you are not good at but be the best at what you do," she concludes.