Wednesday, June 13, 2012
A surge of toxic hydrofracking wastewater has given rise to new chemical free treatment technologies with the potential to solve other nagging environmental challenges ranging from coal mines and pig farms.
I recently spoke with Charles Vinick, CEO of Ecosphere Technologies, to learn about its ability to reduce oil and gas mining operations’ dependence on chemicals that are potentially harmful to people and wildlife. Wells throughout the United States are injected with biocides, friction reducers, and scale inhibitors to protect equipment, but ultimately create a toxic brew of wastewater.
Ecosphere utilizes a proprietary oxidation process called “Ozonix” to treat industrial wastewater. Its energy subsidiary has built mobile treatment facilities with that can currently handle 5,000 gallons per minute. Water is “recycled” and can be reused in other wells, eliminating the need for an injection well to keep pollutants out of groundwater, said Vinick.
The technology has been approved by the Oklahoma Corporation Commission for soil farming, and third party laboratory tests has demonstrated a drastic reduction in microbes - from high to undetectable - after just one past, Vinick says.
Treating the water also eliminates the need for the aforementioned chemicals, but some mining operations will continue to use chemicals nonetheless to reduce risking their investment, Vinick added. “It is a cost effective alternative to chemicals. [Mines] wouldn’t use it if it added costs.”
Ozonix treated over 1 billion gallons of wastewater in 2011 at over 500 onshore oil and gas wells. Ecosphere’s oil and gas revenues have increased 10X over the past two years. Other companies, including OriginOil, offer competing solutions. “Because states are persuading themselves to let fracking go on, they will create a booming market for cleanup,” said Riggs Eckelberry, CEO of OriginOil.
However, water pollution is not limited to oil and gas. Ecosphere is in discussions to license its technology to companies that treat coalmining waste and pig farms located within the Chesapeake Bay watershed. It currently partners with Hydrozonix in the United States.
Vinick, who spent 25 years as managing director of the Cousteau group, believes that companies like Ecosphere are solution providers that will help solve the world’s environmental problems.
“I think that you need activists and solution providers,” he said.
Tainted water that's used in oil and gas drilling could be treated on-sight, reducing costs and limiting environmental risk. (Image credit: Temple University)
Safer fracking may be possible. Biofuel start-up OriginOil has devised a new process to treat water that’s been tainted by gas and oil drilling, reducing production costs and limiting environment harm.
A noxious brew of chemicals, mineral, or petroleum, mixes with drilling water whenever oil and gas companies use a drilling technique called hydraulic fracturing, or “hydro-fracking.” This waste is typically pumped out and trucked off to disposal wells for storage, or is eventually treated.
The industry’s term for the brew is “flowback water”, and it’s aptly named. Handling it harms the bottom line of energy companies as well as the environment. Transporting flowback water adds US$2-5 cost per barrel of oil, said Riggs Eckelberry, CEO of OriginOil. “There’s nothing pretty about that.”
“Permits for disposal wells not being granted anymore,” Eckelberry added. Energy companies are “looking for a fig leaf” as public scrutiny increases, he said. “The fact is we really do help. They need the petro fully recovered and water cleaned.”
Recent Environmental Protection Agency studies found that hydro-fracking tainted an aquifer in Wyoming.
(Image credit: OriginOil)
OriginOil is applying its algae harvesting process to the problem. Third party PACE Engineering showed that the technology was able to remove 98% of hydrocarbons from a sample of West Texas oil well flowback water in the first stage of its treatment, the company says.
Arm & Hammer didn’t invent baking soda to keep refrigerators smelling fresh. It seized the business opportunity, and so to has OriginOil by repurposing its intellectual property. The process uses less energy than traditional treatment methods and is chemical free. Oil service companies would license the technology, paying royalties to OriginOil.
Three proof of concepts for oil drilling applications are planned to begin within the next several weeks, and Eckelberry expects that the technology will be proven by the end of this summer. Cleaning up natural gas fracking operations will happen further into the future, he noted.
“I totally think we can help with gas fracking; we just haven’t tested it yet,” Eckelberry said.
The process can remove undesirable organics such as arsenic and polymers that are using to extract gas, he explained. ”The perception is that natural gas is upsetting biofuels. It helps for us to have role in fracking, which grew 64% from 2010-2011. This will only make algae interest stronger.”