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Researchers Discover Way to Reduce Fracking Wastewater

University of Minnesota Receives $600,000 Grant

Written by Brianna Panzica
Posted September 18, 2012

Hydraulic fracturing, commonly known as fracking, is still fighting controversy across the nation despite its widespread use in the development of the domestic shale formations.

One of the most frequently heard oppositions to the process is the amount of water used and wasted.

It's true; each fracking well uses millions of gallons of water. And once the process is complete, the substance remaining is less water and more liquid chemical, dyed black from the oil, rock, and contaminants.

Nowhere is there a more clear divide on the topic than at colleges like the University of Minnesota, which hosts both a chapter of the U.S. Association of Energy and Economics and a student group called the Environmental Alliance. While one group has a tendency to look at the benefits, the other wouldn't be what it is without environmental concern.

But there is also nowhere more suited to finding a solution to settle the differences. Researchers at the University of Minnesota set out to find a way to clean fracking wastewater.

Biochemistry professor Larry Wackett, the project's principle investigator, told Minnesota Daily:

“We see ourselves at the University as not being on industry's side or the environmentalists' side. We're trying to solve a problem.”

Working with a $250,000 Minnesota Futures grant from the University, the team began investigating methods to clean up the controversial process. And they made a significant breakthrough.

The researchers developed a small, porous silicon bead with a chemical degrading bacteria inside. They found that if they mixed liquid silicon with water containing this bacteria and put this into mineral oil, it would create tiny balls that would harden once exposed to air. The pores in these beads were big enough so chemicals could enter but not so big the bacteria could escape.

They determined that if they used these beads in filtration systems, they could significantly reduce the chemical makeup of wastewater.

The bacteria they use are found naturally in soil and water. They wouldn't pose any harm to people or the environment.

And they would significantly reduce the contamination in fracking wastewater.

Now, the research team has received an even larger grant – $600,000 – from the National Science Foundation to continue to develop this technology.

The team will work with Tundra Companies and Luca Technologies (NASDAQ: LUCA), companies that specialize in bioconversion technologies, to further its research on a larger scale.

From Star Tribune:

“In the real world, it would be millions of gallons of water. There would be a lot of work to go from the lab to a larger scale,” Wackett said.

And that's what the researchers hope to do with Tundra and Luca Technologies.

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They will also focus on the life of the beads – how long one set of beads can work before they must be replaced – how to dispose of spent beads, and what types of bacteria to use for specific chemicals to maximize the effect.

Alptekin Aksan, an assistant mechanical engineering professor at the University and a member of the research team, believes there is huge potential in this project and that it is necessary for the future of energy. He said:

“As long as we can help make this process safer, it's going to be much more obvious to everybody that there is no harm in responsibly using this abundance of energy.”

This year, the U.S. produced 36% of its natural gas from shale, a percentage that could climb as high as 49 by 2035, according to the EIA.

Fracking has become a significant part of domestic oil and natural gas development. And this sort of research – working toward a solution for each side of the debate – could make it definitively safer and more widely accepted.

Brianna Panzica

follow basic@brianna_panzica on Twitter

Energy & Capital's modern energy guru, Brianna digs deep into the industry with accurate and insightful updates into the biggest energy companies and events. She stays up to date with the latest market moves and industry finds, bringing readers a unique view of current energy trends. For more on Brianna, see her editor's page.

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