2011-12-15

Co.Exist

Why You May Not Mind Drinking Fracking Water In The Future

Fracking causes local water to be poisonous and flammable—not something you’d want to put in your body. But what if scientists could make it drinkable again? Would you be willing to take a sip?

After the Gulf oil disaster, scientists from all over the U.S. brainstormed on how to clean up the mess. Perena Gouma, an associate professor at SUNY Stonybrook, was no different. She had developed a piece of technology that could be used to clean up large amounts of hydrocarbons (like oil) from water. As she and her team soon found out, though, the technology was too expensive for cleaning up oil spills. Eventually, Gouma realized that the real market was in cleaning up fracking water—cleaning it so well that it becomes drinkable.

Gouma and her team applied to the National Science Foundation’s I-Corps—a public-private bootcamp for promising research projects that teaches scientists to become entrepreneurs—with the expectation that their technology would be used for oil spills. The team’s technology, dubbed Photocatalysts for Water Remediation, features nanogrids (fishing net-like mats) that float on water and efficiently decompose hydrocarbons using solar irradiation. Other industrial photocatalysts don’t float and respond to only a small portion of the solar spectrum, while Gouma’s technology can use the whole spectrum.

Sounds like the perfect oil spill solution. "That couldn’t be further from our target market," explained Gouma this week at the final presentation for this round of I-Corps participants. Armed with $50,000 from the I-Corps program, the SUNY Stonybrook researchers spent the past few months talking to members of the remediation industry, tweaking their business plan, and even participating in a field study to witness the challenges associated with cleaning up underground oil spills.

The result: "We realized our key customer segment is the produced water market," explained Gouma. That is, in other words, the market for water discharged from hydraulic fracturing (aka fracking)—a process where highly pressured fracking fluid, consisting of water and a slew of chemicals, is injected into rock, which fractures and allows natural gas and oil to be collected. There’s plenty of dirty fracking water left over from the process, and some of it contaminates drinking water.

Gouma estimates that there are 50 billion barrels of fracking water that need to be remediated in order to reach drinking water quality. After traditional wastewater treatment removes most of the oil, fracking water is still left with hydrocarbons like benzene and toluene. The SUNY team’s process can reduce benzene contamination alone by 1,000 times. "This can be used as the final remediation step in produced water cleanup. It can turn produced water from wastewater to drinkable water while treating onsite," said Gouma.

The technology may just end up being commercialized. The SUNY Stonybrook group is in the process of building a C corporation and licensing their intellectual property from the university. This is good news both for people who live near fracked wells and the fracking companies that are dealing with increased pressure to clean up their acts (as they should be). Most of us still probably won’t want to drink fracking water, but think of it this way: People who live near wells already are. They just aren’t getting the benefit of proper water treatment, and now they might.

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8 Comments

  • John Sharland

    In a nation where millions of yuppie types walk around holding a bottle of "pure" spring water in one hand and their "wicked smaht phone" in the other and bumping into old poops like me, these people must be high on something to think that cleaned up fracking water will be accepted as drinking (tap) water.  All we chemical engineers know that tertiary treated sewer system waste treatment water (speaking of poop) is "drinkable" - try getting anyone to drink it.

  • jillMenton

    There is a solution to cleaning all the soilds and hcarbons, radioactivity and more out of the water once it comes to the surface. There is a company called Zenbu Water Solutions out of Denver, Colorado, they are owned by Zenbu Global a larger holding company and they are doing this around the globe. The use electrocoagulation to clean all types of water problems for returning waste water to the earth and sewage systems or for reuse in fracking and also Micro Algae to clean ponds, it is really amazing. How I know is I saw it first hand at a conference and the went to one of their sites, Worth the look and they will glady help any fracking, mines or factories with their problems. These guys care about the enviornment and are really making a difference.. Sometimes it's what you don't know that hurts us.
    Hope this helps.

  • NoNewAilements

    It's too late.  Fracking water has been reported in drinking water.  And those reports are increasing in number.  Discovering the source of how fracking water enters our drinking water is beyond the skill of many of us today.  But what this individual knows can help many.  Don't be afraid to reasearch this with someone.

    No New Ailements

  • Progressive Grrl

    Science can make water safe? Sure... what could POSSIBLY go wrong here? And who cares if fracking screws up local ecosystems in ways we may not even realize for another generation, right? SIGH.

  • Michael

    I sense a bit of sarcasm in your voice? The water that you drink everyday is cleaned and purified by science, whether it be through the use of granular activated carbon, UV radiation, chlorination, and many other scientific processes that require more than physically removal of solids from the water stream. Also, you should learn how fracking actually works. The shale gas deposits are about 7000-10000 feet below the earth's surface. Nearly all, and I say nearly for the same reason anti-bacterial soap dispensers only say 99.99%, of our drinking water is found at 2000 feet and above. (Here is an image to aid in this visual: http://www.energyfromshale.org... There is about an entire mile of solid stone bedrock between the drinking water deposits and  the shale formations. If you are not aware, fracking has been going on for many, many years (At least since the 80's).

    People like you that bash fracking contribute absolutely nothing to the betterment of this technology. I see many faults with fracking, but it is here to stay. Money talks and there is no way fracking is going to be banned. It has already reduced the cost of producing chemicals with ethane rather than naphtha by 50%. (http://online.wsj.com/article/... I do not argue that water becomes contaminated at these sites, but that is the result of irresponsibility on the corporations part. When the fracking water is brought back up from the well, it is stored in a man-made pond. Usually the water is then fed into large mobile distillation trucks that boil the water to remove many impurities. As all chemical engineers here know, the boiling of water is a very expensive process and could influence a contractors decision to dump the dirty fracking water instead of paying to purify it.

    Any bandaid is a good start to cleaning this water. However, the real solution is eliminating the entire use of water entirely. This would solve many of the contamination problems fracking is now facing. Two solutions that I am aware of that are being tested in the field is CO2 Sequestration and the use of Liquid Propane Gel (LPG). Both are pumped down the well at extremely high pressures as liquids, and once the pumps are reversed and the pressure is relieved, allowing for the gases to flow to the surface, the CO2 and the propane gel flash into a gas, eliminating any liquid product.

  • Mike Rowlands

    This is dangerous thinking, and the implicit assertion that this is a green product is nigh on farcical. While I don't doubt that the inventors are well-meaning, it's imperative to be clear this is a poor bandaid on a filthy industrial development. Fracking contaminates groundwater. This technology only can clean water that's returned to the surface. So it doesn't fix the real problem. Humans aren't the only creatures exposed to danger when groundwater is contaminated. The entire bio system is at risk. Let's be more cautious celebrating technologies that suggest absurdly unsustainable practices like fracking are OK. They're not. And bandaiding them isn't sufficient remediation.

  • Philip

    This band-aid itself is dangerous.  Hydrocarbons are not the only contaminants contained in the spent fracking fluids.  The produced waters often contain radioactive materials and heavy metals which will not be decomposed by solar irradiation.  After this process is applied, you may not be able to light the water on fire, but it could still give you cancer and so far from truly safe drinking water.

    It is irresponsible to suggest these technologies can be used in the future to make fracking safe.

  • Ariel Schwartz

    I don't think anyone would claim that this fixes all of fracking's problems. But I think the real dangerous thinking is to ignore potential "band-aids" like this. Fracking isn't going to stop anytime soon. Water is being contaminated, whether we like it or not. If this can help even a little bit, we would be foolish to ignore it.