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.