Turning Frack Water into Profit is Tricky Business

  • Mike Broeker, COO of Ephiphany Solar Water Systems, at his company's facility in Pittsburgh. Photo: Reid R. Frazier

  • Satellite dish panels covered by highly reflective material will collect heat to evaporate water out of oil and gas waste water. Photo: Reid R. Frazier

  • Meagan Mauter, of Carnegie Mellon University, with a high-tech membrane she's developing to take salts out of oil and gas waste water. Photo: Reid R. Frazier

October 17, 2014

Inside a cavernous industrial building in Pittsburgh, Mike Broeker shows off what he hopes is the next big thing in cleaning up the fracking business: three satellite dishes. 

He says these dishes will use the sun's rays to clean up brine that comes out of a shale gas well in Pennsylvania. Broeker, COO of Epiphany Solar Water Systems, actually started the company a few years ago to clean up drinking water in the developing world. But in 2011, development of the Marcellus Shale natural gas field presented a new opportunity.

Broker's dishes are just one of many systems companies are experimenting with to clean up the very dirty water the oil and gas industry produces. Entrepreneurs and chemists are also trying high-tech filters, "forward osmosis," electro-coagulation, and various forms of distillation to see if these techniques can actually clean up frack water. But it's a bigger task than it might seem, and some doubt whether cleaning up frack water will ever be a moneymaker.

A HIGH-TECH STILL

Each well that’s fracked in the Marcellus Shale in Pennsylvania produces about a million gallons of dirty water.  Fracking companies are now reusing most of this water for future frack jobs; or they’re sending it to deep injection wells, often in Ohio.

About 10 percent of Pennsylvania’s 17 million barrels of oil and gas wastewater went to deep well injection in the second half of 2013, according to state data compiled by the mapping website FracTracker

But injection comes with its own set of problems, like earthquakes. So cleaning it up could make financial and environmental sense. Lux Research estimates oil and gas wastewater management is a $1 billion industry and could grow to $9 billion by the next decade.

To get into this market, Epiphany reworked its water cleanup technology to deal with fracking wastewater. Its system involves covering those satellite dishes with highly reflective material. The material allows the dishes to become solar heat collectors—generating enough heat to evaporate clean water vapor off of oil and gas waste water. The sun heats up the wastewater in a “mechanical vapor recompression crystallizer." It's basically a high-tech distillation still—the same basic contraption bootleggers use to make moonshine.

SALTY WATER POSES PROBLEMS

Broeker hopes the company’s system will be deployed on well pads throughout the Marcellus Shale and beyond. It has three units so far in the field with different gas companies, though he can’t say which ones.

Oil and gas wastewater comes in two basic types. "Flowback" is the water that returns to the surface in great volume during the fracking stage. It contains chemicals added to the fracturing fluid injected underground. "Produced water" is the liquid that flows out of a well along with gas and other liquids after it’s been put into production. It generally carries fewer fracking chemicals. 

Epiphany’s system is designed to clean up produced water. This liquid has been sitting underground for hundreds of millions of years, and that makes it difficult to clean up.

“You’ve got water that has a tremendous amount of salt in it,” Broeker says. In some cases, it's 10 times saltier than seawater. That level of salt content destroys equipment, so Epiphany has had to use materials that won’t corrode and limit the number of components that come into contact with the water.

WICKING FABRIC FOR FRACK WATER

The salt also presents a challenge to other technologies in development. Reverse osmosis uses a membrane filter to strain the salt out of seawater. However, to get the water through the membrane, pressure needs to be applied. The saltier the water, the more pressure is needed.

“With flowback, or produced water, the salinity is so high you have to push very, very hard, and that risks rupturing the membrane,” says Meagan Mauter, a chemical engineer at Carnegie Mellon University. 

Mauter and her colleagues are developing a special membrane that will allow water vapor to go through it, but no liquids. Dirty water stays back behind the membrane; clean vapor travels through, kind of like a wicking fabric for frack water.

“It’s very similar to the polymer that makes Gore-Tex,” Mauter says. 

Mauter says she’s a long way from having a product that can be commercialized. But if there is ever a machine that can clean up frack water cheaply, some think it will have no shortage of buyers.

BOTTOM LINE QUESTIONS

Despite the interest in solving the problem of oil and gas waste, not everyone thinks it can become a viable industry. Brent Giles, an analyst at Lux Research, says a lot of startups that got into the market have failed—essentially because of hubris. 

“They’ve got a solution, and as soon as they started seeing frack water issues show up in the New York Times and newspapers like that, they decided they were going to become experts in the oil and gas space," Giles says. "And that hasn’t worked out for a lot of them.”

They’ve been tripped up by the chemistry of oil and gas wastewater—particularly, the salty brines of the Marcellus Shale.

“In the Marcellus, most of these technologies have utterly failed to treat the water. It’s such low quality water that the technology crashed and burned when they try to treat it.”

Giles says companies that use more low-tech solutions, like prepping wastewater to be reused in future frack jobs, have been more successful. Part of the problem is that the type and quantity of water produced in oil and gas wells changes over the lifetime of a well. There’s a lot more water that comes out of a well during the fracking stage. During the production stage, when the well is hooked up to a pipeline, the water the well produces gets saltier over time.

Creating a technology to treat all these scenarios is difficult. Giles says it’s just cheaper and easier to re-use that frack water or inject it underground. Cleaning it up hasn’t proven viable yet. 

“We’ve seen a lot of people try, and we’ve seen a lot of people not meet the numbers the oil and gas people are asking for,” Giles says. 

REGULATIONS COULD HAVE IMPACT

Broeker of Epiphany Solar Water says his company is already meeting the price point the industry wants. The company has already received a $500,000 investment from Consol Energy. 

Some say the costs for other treatment methods could change. Annie Lane, a chemist at the Battelle research firm, is working on a reverse osmosis system that uses multiple membranes. She’s getting more interest in technologies like hers from oil and gas companies. She says the companies are keeping an eye on whether regulations could change their current business model. 

“The industry’s very interested in potential changes in policy and regulations,” Lane says. “They see continued use of injection wells actually as being threatened due to possible changes in policy. So they’re interested in identifying alternatives.” 

She thinks one day the water will be more valuable cleaned up and above ground than pumped down a hole.