Fracking, the use of hydraulic pressure to release natural gas and oil from shale, has the potential to meet energy demands with U.S. resources and stimulate the economy. However, the practice also carries possible environmental and public health risks, most notably water contamination.
A University of Minnesota research team is addressing this challenge by developing innovative biotechnology to purify fracking wastewater. Headed by Larry Wackett, a professor in the College of Biological Sciences, the team includes Alptekin Aksan, professor in the College of Science and Engineering, and Michael Sadowsky, professor in the College of Food, Agriculture and Natural Resource Sciences.
The effort has earned a new $600,000 grant from the National Science Foundation’s Partnerships for Innovation (NSF-PFI) program, which pairs academic researchers with companies to transfer academic knowledge to the private sector and produce innovative technologies that benefit the public. Wackett, Aksan and Sadowksy, as well as CBS Dean Robert Elde, are co-investigators. Elde’s role is to lead interaction between the researchers and the companies. If the project is successful, the team will be eligible for additional NSF funding.
The three scientists, all members of the university’s BioTechnology Institute, are using naturally-occurring bacteria embedded in porous silica materials to biodegrade contaminants in fracking wastewater, a technology they originally developed to remove agricultural pesticides from soil and water. They now have the ability to customize the technology to degrade chemicals in water used for fracking. Their goal is to make the water suitable for re-use in fracking of other wells and significantly reduce the amount of water used by industry.
The team will work with Tundra Companies of White Bear Lake, Minn. on silica encapsulation technologies, and Luca Technologies of Boulder, Colo. on a related effort -- using encapsulated microbes to recover natural gas from depleted coal beds. Neither company is involved in fracking. However, they see a business opportunity in helping the U.S. meet its energy needs domestically in an environmentally responsible fashion. The university’s role is to further develop a platform technology that could be used by these and other companies.
Fracking relies on forcing 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. 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. Chemicals present deep below the Earth’s surface, as well as chemicals used in fracking may contaminate water.
Evaporation and filtration, the current treatment methods, are expensive. Moreover, they don’t eliminate chemicals, they simply reduce them to a concentrated form. Industrial scale evaporation and filtration are energy intensive, and both methods leave behind a chemical residue that presents a disposal challenge.
The research team understands public concerns about the environmental impact of fracking, as well as industry concerns about misinformation related to risks, Elde says. A leading research institution, the University of Minnesota has reached out to the business community, via its large alumni network, to work together on these issues.
“The University of Minnesota is not taking sides in the fracking debate, but as a land-grant research institution, it is uniquely positioned to carry out necessary and beneficial research,” Wackett says. “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.”
Earlier this year, Wackett and his team also won a University of Minnesota Futures Grant to more broadly explore methods for mitigating the environmental impacts of fracking. For this project, they are working with a larger interdisciplinary group of co-investigators including faculty in the Humphrey Institute for Public Affairs and the School of Public Health as well as the intercollegiate BioTechnology Institute. Given to only one or two faculty teams annually, Futures Grants encourage extraordinary collaborative research deemed likely to attract substantial external funding.