Turning frack water into profit proves a challenge
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.
“These are the most common satellite dishes in the world,” says Broeker, COO of Epiphany Solar Water Systems.
The dishes will use the sun's rays to clean up brine that comes out of a shale gas well in Pennsylvania. They are just one of many systems companies are experimenting with to clean up the very dirty water the oil and gas industry produces. The waste water goes by various names—flowback, produced water, or brine.
Entrepreneurs and chemists are trying high-tech filters, "forward osmosis," electro-coagulation, and various forms of distillation to see if these techniques can 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.
Epiphany was started a few years ago to clean up drinking water in the developing world. But in 2011, a new market presented itself.
“Then came the Marcellus Shale opportunity,” Broeker says.
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 re-using most of this 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 waste water 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 waste water management is a $1 billion industry, and could grow to $9 billion by next decade.
To get into this market, Epiphany re-worked 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 (and natural gas when the sun isn’t shining) heat up the waste water in a “mechanical vapor recompression crystallizer." It's basically a high-tech still, the same basic contraption bootleggers use to make moonshine.
“It is the same concept—it is distillation,” Broeker says.
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, and 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 for a headache 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, essentially a filter, to strain the salt out of seawater.
To get the water through the membrane, pressure needs to be applied to it—but the saltier the water, 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, clean vapor travels through, kind of like 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 that new technologies will ever succeed financially. Brent Giles, an analyst at Lux Research, says a lot of startups who 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 by 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 re-used 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 research firm Battelle, is working on a reverse osmosis system that uses multiple membranes.
She’s getting more interest from oil and gas companies in technologies like hers that can deal with this dirty water. 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.