University of Minnesota researchers developing methods to treat water contaminated in fracking process

North Dakota’s oil boom has meant a gush of new jobs, soaring local economies and a dramatic increase in U.S. energy production. But some warn the process used to extract the oil will have negative consequences for the environment.

Fracking—short for hydraulic fracturing—uses highly pressurized water with chemical additives to force gas and oil from underground rock. While extremely efficient, the process is also controversial. Among the environmental concerns are the large volumes of water required and inadequate methods for treating water that returns to the surface, known as the flowback water.

This summer, researchers from the University’s Biotechnology Institute were awarded a $600,000 federal grant to develop technology to treat flowback water. Led by College of Biological Sciences professor Lawrence Wackett, the team includes Alptekin Aksan, professor in the College of Science and Engineering, and Michael Sadowsky, a Water Resources Sciences graduate program professor in the College of Food, Agriculture and Natural Resource Sciences.

Wackett’s team is researching ways to degrade chemicals in flowback water using natural bacteria encapsulated in silica microspheres. The microspheres retain the bacteria, but allow chemicals to diffuse in to the bacteria so they can degrade them.

Initially, the researchers developed methods to separate and identify the different chemicals in the water. They analyzed those results and are determining which chemicals are most important to treat. Bacteria are then selected that are most able to degrade the chemicals selected for removal. One goal of the process is to reduce the fracking industry’s water consumption by allowing water used in one well to be recycled in other wells.

Earlier this year, Wackett, Aksan and Sawdowsky, along with investigators from the University’s Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs and the School of Public Health also won a $250,000 University of Minnesota Futures Grant to more explore cross-disciplinary methods for mitigating the environmental impacts of fracking.

Reducing the environmental impacts of fracking is the goal of Wackett’s project, and the group is working with industry, government and educational institutions in the process.

“The University of Minnesota is not taking sides in the fracking debate, but as a land-grant institution, we are uniquely positioned to carry out necessary and beneficial research,” Wackett says. “There are many efforts ongoing to improve the treatment of water used in fracking and we feel that biotechnology can play a significant role in the overall effort. I expect our work to help develop a platform of technologies that can be used throughout the industry.”