There's no denying that hydraulic fracturing ("fracking") is a dirty business. The process can pollute groundwater with toxic chemicals, potentially cause earthquakes, and release methane (a potent greenhouse gas) into the atmosphere. But fracking isn't going anywhere in the near-term; natural gas is just too cheap and abundant for the energy industry to abandon the practice just because of a few piddling environmental and health considerations. So an industrial enzyme company, Verenium, is aiming to clean up the fracking process.
Verenium never intended to get involved in fracking. The company manufactures enzymes that are used for a number of functions, including oilseed processing, grain processing, and improving the digestibility of phosphorus naturally found in animal feed. "They're very specific, and they only function on what you instruct them to function on," says Verenium CEO Jamie Levine.
When the fracking industry discovered that toxic substance-filled drilling fluids leaking into groundwater makes some people very unhappy (and very sick), it realized that it should probably clean up those drilling fluids—maybe with a little help from Verenium's enzymes. "The oil services industry saw that it had a problem," explains Levine.
When workers frack a gas well, they insert fluid into the opening under high pressure. One of those fluids is something called guar, which is coupled with sand. The sand distributes into fractures in the ground to hold them open, while the gel-like guar transports the sand to where it needs to be—otherwise the sand would just float to the top.
But here's the problem: That guar needs to get back out of the well somehow, and most natural gas companies use corrosive acids to do that. These acids can corrode the well, seep into soil, end up in groundwater, and pose an employee safety issue.
According to Levine, Verenium's biodegradable enzymes can replace the acids and break down guar without any accompanying safety problems—and they're cost-efficient, too. There are other harmful chemicals in fracking fluid (750 chemicals and compounds used in total, including 29 possible or known carcinogens) that Verenium isn't fixing, but getting rid of acids is as good a place to start as any.
Verenium is only selling its fracking enzymes in small amounts at the moment, but the company could quickly scale up. "We could supply the industry's needs with the manufacturing capacity we have in place to produce enzymes," says Levine. The question is, why isn't the entire oil services industry paying attention?
[Image: Flickr user Vermin Inc]