Among the many common critiques of the hydraulic fracturing process is its massive water use. The amount of freshwater guzzled by the industry is shocking. According to a post on EcoWatch.com from September 2012, there were some 65.9 billion gallons of water used to frack wells in the U.S. from January 2011 to August 2012. In more visceral terms, the post frames that figure as a little more than the volume of water flowing over Niagara Falls in 24 hours.
Supplying that volume of water poses difficulties in itself by straining the freshwater supplies of many areas where drilling occurs. In the cases where the local environment cannot support the amount of water extraction necessary for fracking, drilling companies often truck in their supply which adds yet another wrinkle to the carbon footprint of the practice.
To date, once water has been used to frack a well, it has largely been considered useless. The combination of chemicals used as additives and the inherent contamination with oil and heavy metals as the water flows deep within the wells themselves have made it both difficult and expensive to process previously fracked water for any sort of reuse. Therefore, freshwater is generally used to frack once, then trucked back offsite to a waste depository.
That is, until recently.
During the past few months as fracking becomes more prevalent, and new technology becomes more accessible, groups of engineers have been attempting to find new ways to recycle some of the water consumed by the process. Let's take a closer look at three of these groups and how their processes differ.
University of Texas, Austin
A team of chemical engineers at UT Austin has developed a new membrane for use in mobile filtration systems, designed for use onsite at fracking wells. While mobile filtration systems already exist, the team at UT Austin has spent its time investigating the efficacy of new types of membranes.
According to the Journal of Membrane Science, the team's new treatments result in up to a 50% increase in the volume of reusable waste water from fracking operations. This incredible impact is achieved through the team's emphasis on making the membranes hardier, resulting in an easier to clean and more durable solution than those currently on the market.
University of Texas, San Antonio, and the Southwest Research Institute
In another attempt to find an effective way to treat water recovered from fracking wells, the University of Texas, San Antonio, and the Southwest Research Institute are embarking on a test involving biochar. Rather than approaching the issue with a membrane filter, which would remain as the first step in the purification process, this team is working to establish a second round of effective treatment.
Similar to charcoal, biochar is an organic material that will hopefully serve as an absorbent filter for fracking water. Once large particulates and other contaminants are removed from the water with a membrane, the biochar would be used to remove additional contaminants before it is suitable for reuse, provided it is proven to be effective.
Global Industrial Water
Unlike the university teams actively developing new methods for recycling water, Global Industrial Water (GWI) is a large industry player currently in the process of practically applying several water reuse tactics in the field. The organization hopes to develop a process or series of processes to transform the fracking industry's water use going forward.
GWI's involvement early on could be promising for early adoption of these technologies as they continue to emerge. After all, GWI already operates on four continents in several industries including power generation, the food and beverage industry and laboratory operations.
The bottom line for the industry
If hydraulic fracturing is here to stay, it's only a matter of time before a more efficient way to recycle water becomes a necessity. The stresses brought by the industry on water resources are simply unsustainable otherwise. Whether a solution comes out of a university laboratory or a corporate boardroom, something has to be done. Luckily for the industry, there are plenty of people working on finding an answer.