Natural gas is domestically abundant (2,587 trillion cubic feet of technically recoverable natural gas in the United States) and it burns cleaner than oil and coal (30% and 50% less carbon dioxide emissions respectively), but removing the hydrocarbons from mile deep shale beds has proven to be a dangerous and environmentally damaging endeavor.
During fracking, a mixture of water, sodium, sand, heavy metals, soap, chemicals and hundreds of other components are injected into cracks in the shale bed at extremely high pressures. Breaking open the rock allows gas and other volatile organic compounds to be released. It can take 6 million gallons of this fluid to frack one well and wells may be fracked multiple times. The DOE approximates 21 billion barrels of produced water is generated each year and as we seek ways to end our dependence on foreign oil, those numbers will rise.
It's bad enough the fracking process is a massive drain on the water supply and even worse when you consider that the chemical-laden wastewater is injected into underground wells around popular fracking sites in places like Texas and Arkansas. The geology around the Marcellus Shale Formation in Pennsylvania (which holds enough natural gas to fuel the U.S. for 2 years) doesn't lend itself to this bury-and-forget technique.
Currently, flowback and produced water is taken from drill sites to nearby wastewater plants [PDF] unequipped to filter dissolved hydrocarbons, radioactive chemicals, and other volatile organic compounds. The mixture is eventually dumped into the Susquehanna and Delaware Rivers-the drinking source for tens of millions of people. Thankfully, Pennsylvania is cracking down on this practice, but they are left with the problem of what to do with all that briny fracking fluid.
The answer is Osorb, a silica (or glass) that swells eight times its size while scavenging dissolved hydrocarbons, polymers, and chemicals. The purification system, developed by ABSMaterials (with funding from the DOE) removes 99% of oil and grease, more than 90% of dissolved hydrocarbons, and "significant amounts of production chemicals".
Of two pilot-tested systems, one processed 6 gallons every hour and the other could handle 60 gallons in the same time. Not the most efficient solution, but a lot better for local residents than waking up to a cup of hot methane and lemon. The private company has announced that a 72,000 gallon per day, trailer-mounted purification system will be in use (most likely designated to Marcellus) by this summer.
As the natural gas market skyrockets, we hope more fracking sites filter flowback using Osorb's portable trailer technology, but until regulations are put in place, it is doubtful that all of the wells (1386 were drilled last year) will recover and treat their produced water with such diligence. It is simply too cheap and easy to continue pushing the produced water through municipal systems--that is, until more lawsuits pop-up.