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New company says it can safely handle Marcellus wastewater

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By Rick Stouffer
Thursday, April 22, 2010

A new company formed at Pittsburgh's Allegheny-Singer Research Institute believes it's found an environmentally safe way to treat millions of gallons of wastewater generated by drilling for natural gas in the Marcellus Shale formation.

Frac Biologics Inc. also hopes to treat a long-time problem all too common in Southwestern Pennsylvania: acid mine drainage.

The company licensed technology from the Allegheny-Singer institute and in return will pay the North Shore research arm of Allegheny General Hospital royalties from sales to companies drilling for gas in the mile-deep Marcellus formation.

"The idea for the company came from our work with biofilms, which are (cell) communities that we try to manipulate or get rid of to treat human disease," said Christopher Post, a physician and CEO of the 3-month-old company. Other founders are physician William Costerton and Garth Ehrlich. All three are Allegheny-Singer directors.

Allegheny-Singer researchers found the biofilms love to eat heavy metals, such as strontium, nickel, even uranium. The metals, in effect, fuel the biofilms, Post said.

Water recovered from the natural gas drilling in the Marcellus formation, called fractionalization, or fracking, can be laced with small quantities of heavy metals. Disposing of frac water is considered by many as the major problem confronting the booming drilling industry in Pennsylvania.

The Marcellus Shale formation, which stretches through seven states, is believed to hold enough natural gas to supply the country's needs for more than 20 years.

"Private-sector investment and entrepreneurial activity will continue to make the Marcellus Shale the pro-economic, pro-environmental story of our time," said Kathryn Klaber, CEO of the trade group Marcellus Shale Coalition, in a statement.

Post said the company is ramping up the volume of frac water its technology can treat, with 5,000 gallons the next step in the development process. He said it would take about 20 minutes to remove metals from that volume of water.

"The Marcellus Shale industry itself has been doing most of the research in dealing with wastewater," said state Department of Environmental Protection spokesman Tom Rathbun. "We'll review any process the industry brings to us."

The Pittsburgh-based private equity-venture capital firm iNetworks is a major investor in Frac Biologics, according to the company. Pradeep Khosla, dean of Carnegie Mellon University's College of Engineering, is an iNetwork's senior adviser, while Post's son, Carter, is a company analyst, according to its Web site.

The company is working with the Community College of Allegheny County to ensure that jobs created by its technology will have properly educated workers to fill them.

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