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It was Dale Carnegie who made popular the phrase, “If you have a lemon, make lemonade.” And that’s the kind of transformation a couple of smarty pants brothers are hoping to make in an industry that’s taking a bit of a drubbing these days. The problem: leftovers from fracking.
Fracking is short for hydraulic fracturing. It’s a technique used to extract natural gas and petroleum from the rock way below the earth’s surface. The way it works is a fluid – a mixture of toxic chemicals, water and sand - is pumped down a pipe into the ground under enormous pressure, cracking the rock and allowing the gas and oil to flow back up the pipe. The gas and oil are separated from the water. Then the left over water, or frack waste water is trucked to another site and pumped into even deeper underground holding wells called injection or disposal wells.
Since the process was perfected in the late 2000s, there has been a notable increase in earthquakes in areas with fracking and injection wells. "TechKnow" traveled to two small neighboring towns in Texas - Reno and Azle - where they had a couple of doozies (by Texas standards) late in 2013 and hundreds of smaller jolts. Something completely unheard of until recently.
Researchers are trying to figure out if there is a connection to the injection wells and the earthquakes. Is the pressure from the injection process re-awakening deep and ancient faults? Could the chemicals be lubricating the long dormant rock? Is it coincidence? Are there other factors involved like the drought or low aquifer levels in the area. Southern Methodist University is conducting a research project to figure out what’s going on down below. The answers are still pending. Meantime a growing number of localities are going NIMBY, attacking fracking with campaigns to ban the process.
Now, from the department of turning lemon into lemonade, inventors (and investors) in small labs around the country are attacking fracking in another way: figuring out how to turn that dirty waste into green…green as in environmentally friendly and green as in money. The idea is to reuse the frack wastewater instead of just pumping it into underground holding wells.
That’s what brought us to a nondescript building in a rundown neighborhood in Los Angeles. It’s the home of OriginOil, where they’ve come up with a way to separate the gooey ick (my term) from the left over frack water. That water can then be reused in the fracking process. It’s done with what OriginOil calls its Electro Water Separation machine.
Here’s how it works. The frack water goes through a series of tubes that are electrically charged. That electrical charge causes most of the frack water’s brine, salts and chemicals to clump together. The water and the clumps get pumped into a tank. On the bottom of the tank are a bunch of pipes called the “corndog” pipes, each with dozens of holes. Air bubbles up through those holes, gently pushing the clumps to the top, where the goop gets scooped. The water that’s left over can then be re-used for fracking. The “goop” still has to be stored – but it’s a fraction of what now goes into the waste disposal wells.
OriginOil launched its system in May 2014 in Texas and is now being used at a frack site in Colorado. "TechKnow’s" Crystal Dilworth got a small-scale (and very stinky) demonstration of how the system works. Nicholas Eckleberry designed the system. His brother Riggs is the CEO and is one heck of a salesman, although his first order of business was to warn us not to let our camera drop into the demo water, lest the chemicals erode the rubber around the camera casing. Don’t have to tell us twice.
We watched as one end of the tank produced the icky goo while on the other end, clear water came out. But, don’t even think about drinking it. It’s clean enough to frack with, but according to Riggs it’s still loaded with chemicals that would still eat away at the rubber casing around the camera. No telling what it could do to your esophagus.
Riggs says the beauty of the OriginOil system is 3-fold. Of course, the top reason is recycling the water, especially with this increasingly precious resource. Secondly, if it turns out that the fracking process is the cause of the recent swarm of earthquakes, the process could help calm the core of the earth. But the reason that could convince the gas industry to embrace the system is financial. OriginOil’s tanks are small enough and mobile enough to install right at the frack site. Their solution will save the gas industry money because they’ll no longer have to truck the stinky water to a disposal well. And the very long-range plan is to be able to process the water so it’s clean enough to farm with. And maybe, someday use it for growing lemons and turning those lemons and old frack water into lemonade.