The increased use of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, to extract natural gas and oil in many parts of the United States, has dramatically increased the nation's energy supply, but also raised concerns about such issues as water pollution. Private companies are now rushing into the relatively new market for recycling drill site water.
A machine, developed by a company called "OriginOil," removes sludge from water that came from an oil drilling site - with a process originally developed for extracting algae.
“Petroleum is nothing but old algae, so essentially what we are doing is taking the organics out and leaving the clean water,” explained company CEO Riggs Eckelberry.
OriginOil has used its demonstration equipment in its home state of California to retrieve petroleum from water a driller had already processed.
“They gave it to us, thinking it was already clean; we brought out that gunky stuff and they saw dollar signs,” added Eckelberry.
OriginOil's General Manager Bill Charneski says even a small percentage of oil retrieved from drilling operations can be valuable.
“If it is produced water and it just has oil in it, then there is going to be substantial value because you can simply put it back in the pipeline that goes to the refinery,” Charneski said.
Produced water is what comes up with oil and gas from deep earth deposits, but drillers also use tons of water mixed with sand and chemicals in the fracturing process.
Currently, that water has to be trucked in -- and the contaminated water then has to be trucked out -- for disposal at great cost.
At Rice University, chemist Andrew Barron, who studies the water issue, says there are now many companies providing on-site processes and using different approaches, depending on local conditions.
“I think what you are going to see are industries within regions using specific technologies, " Barron said, "but over all in the country we will see a number of technologies being applied.”
Protests against fracking have grown because of concerns over water pollution. But Barron is trying to address this issue by developing tracers that can identify water from a given operation.
“The idea is that you would put these tracers in a frack job and if there is contamination in the water from somewhere else, you could potentially trace the source of that contamination,” he explained.
While that may not answer all environmental complaints about hydraulic fracturing, Barron thinks it will provide better data for everyone concerned.