A fortuitous laboratory accident could lead to a solution to one of the biggest problems associated with natural gas fracking. The prolific yet highly controversial practice of hydraulic fracturing involves pumping large amounts of water, chemicals and sand into underground shale rock formations in order to break up the rock and free trapped and otherwise inaccessible pockets of natural gas.
This process results in a great deal of contaminated wastewater. Up until now approaches to deal with this issue have mostly been variations of the same theme which is to try to find somewhere to put the contaminated water so that it will be out of the way.
Natural Gas Drilling
Exotic properties of a nanomaterial uncovered in a lab could hold a solution for dealing with fracking wastewater by sponging contaminants from the water with remarkable efficiency.
The discovery that led to this potential breakthrough came from a small lab at Wooster College in Ohio. At the time the lab was working under the direction of Paul Edmiston on a project funded by the National Science Foundation.
Paul and his team were not looking for a solution to the water contamination problem. They were looking for a way to detect explosives when an unexpected result led them down the path to a solution to an entirely different problem. One of Paul’s students was afraid she had made a mistake when she got an unexpected result while working with a nano-engineered glass. When she introduced acetone, a hydrocarbon, to the glass it immediately gobbled up the acetone changing shape in the process.
It didn't take long for Paul to understand the implications of what they had witnessed.
The material performs its magic at the nano level by absorbing organic molecules into its matrix of linked particles expanding in the process up to eight times its original size thus sequestering hydrocarbons from the water. It attracts non-charged particles and it ignores anything that is electrically charged such as water. This makes it a perfect mechanism for removing undesirable material from water.
The mechanism by which Osorb removes hydrocarbons from water is not based on a chemical reaction. Rather it is a mechanical process. This makes the sponge analogy entirely appropriate. Osorb physically absorbs the oil from the water without otherwise interacting with the water. In the process it expands up to eight times its original size much like a sponge. The material can then be removed from the water taking the hydrocarbons with it. Both the Osorb and the oil can be reused afterwards.
Today Paul has turned the accidental discovery of the material he dubbed Osorb into a startup company with hopes of using his technology to tackle the natural gas and oil drilling wastewater problem. The concept was put to the test during the BP oil spill. A small proof of concept test showed the Osorb to perform quite well in the task of removing the oil from the water without many of the drawbacks of the chemical dispersants which were more widely deployed in the cleanup and containment effort.
Oil Spill, Gulf of Mexico (NASA, International Space Station Science, 05/04/10)
The shale drilling boom has been a mixed blessing. Fracking technology has opened up vast amounts of natural gas reserves previously thought to be too expensive or inaccessible. This has led to badly needed economic stimulus and jobs in certain parts of the country as well as a dramatic decline in natural gas prices. Electricity rates in Texas where natural gas produces a large portion of the state’s electricity have fallen along with natural gas prices.
Yet critics of fracking are numerous and vocal. Of the long list of complaints water contamination is near the top. If this new technology does, in fact, deliver on its promise it could change the nature of the debate.
The department of energy has provided funding to test the viability of the material in cleaning oilfield water and has confirmed that it can remove up to 99% of the oil and grease from the contaminated water.
By. Holbert Janson of the TCCEA