In West Texas, for every barrel of oil extracted through fracking, 10 barrels of unusable wastewater is produced, said Zacariah Hildenbrand, co-founder of UTA’s research group Collaborative Laboratories for Environmental Analysis and Remediation.
Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, is a method for extracting oil and gas from bedrock by injecting an oil well with high-pressure water, sand and chemicals, according to the United States Geological Survey website.
This summer, a UTA research team published three articles on the results of water treatment research.
Both researchers and students collaborated with the Japan-based company Asahi Kasei, which specializes in chemicals and materials science, to develop a more cost-effective, efficient and durable way to reuse wastewater from hydraulic fracturing. The company provided filtering equipment for the research.
Two articles addressed forward osmosis treatment of high salinity wastewater and different methods of reusing water from fracking. The third article described the pretreatment techniques for produced water, or water contaminated by fracking, with subsequent forward osmosis remediation.
“We need this energy. We can’t live off of renewables, we can’t live off of wind and solar exclusively,” said Zacariah Hildenbrand, co-founder of UTA’s research group Collaborative Laboratories for Environmental Analysis and Remediation. “We use so much energy in this world. And so, instead of fighting [the oil industry] on this, why don’t we work together and help them make it a clean and more effective process.”
Tiffany Liden, a postdoctoral researcher and chemistry adjunct professor, said that despite having global water shortages, we are still disposing of billions of gallons of water through fracking.
Liden wrote her dissertation on the characterization and remediation of produced water. She said it was centered upon remediation techniques and evaluated a filtering method called forward osmosis.
Forward osmosis involves a high salinity draw solution that extracts freshwater across a membrane from the contaminated feed solution of produced water, she said.
Kevin Schug, Collaborative Laboratories for Environmental Analysis and Remediation director, said the goal of wastewater recycling is to reduce the need for injection wells or disposal wells, which are used to dispose of produced water.
Because the wastewater from fracking isn’t reusable, it is put into injection wells, Schug said. If these wells are injected with too much water, they can burst and cause earthquakes.
Hildenbrand said wastewater recycling means not contaminating millions of gallons of water and throwing them away in injection wells.
“The produced water treatment aspect is kind of like killing two birds with one stone,” he said. “If you can treat the water when it comes to the surface and reuse it for your next production well, then you don’t need to buy more fresh water.”