Researchers in Minnesota say they’ve figured out a way to clean polluted water that results from underground hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.” The problem has plagued energy company officials who believe that domestic fracking could more than meet U.S. energy demands by reaching new supplies of oil and natural gas.
The University of Minnesota team is developing naturally-occurring bacteria that live in silica deposits, a technology they originally developed to remove agricultural pesticides from soil and water. Fracking forces millions of gallons of water, sand and chemicals deep into the earth, creating fissures that allow natural gas or oil to escape and be recovered. The wastewater returns to the surface where it is treated and released into surface water, injected back into the earth, or recycled for use for fracking of other wells.
Drilling firms evaporate and filter industrial fracking water, but it’s expensive and doesn’t actually remove the chemicals, just concentrates them into a toxic residue. The University of Minnesota group includes biology professor Larry Wackett, engineering professor Alptekin Aksan and Michael Sadowsky, professor of food, agriculture and natural resources. They are working with Minnesota-based Tundra Companies and Boulder-based Luca Technologies and are funded by a $600,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to develop a platform to encapsulate the bacteria and efficiently treat the wastewater.
"There are many efforts ongoing to improve the treatment of water used in fracking and we feel that biotechnology can play a significant role in the overall effort," Wackett said.
Chemicals used or produced by fracking have contaminated drinking water supplies in Pennsylvania and New York state, leading to environmental lawsuits and calls for tougher regulations. The South African parliament lifted a ban on fracking last week, opening the door to development of vast reserves of shale gas in the Karoo region, estimated to be the world’s fifth largest reserve of gas.