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Pitt gets funds for study on reducing fracking wastewater

Joe Napsha
| Tuesday, Oct. 30, 2018, 9:00 p.m.
A pond below a drilling rig used to extract natural gas from the Marcellus shale near Houston in Washington County in 2008.
A pond below a drilling rig used to extract natural gas from the Marcellus shale near Houston in Washington County in 2008.

Researchers led by the University of Pittsburgh’s engineering school may have cracked a code to greatly reduce the amount of fresh water used by natural gas drillers to fracture shale to release methane trapped thousands of feet underground, the university said Tuesday.

Pitt’s team of researchers from the Swanson School of Engineering was awarded a $1.76 million grant by the Department of Energy to conduct pilot tests of a membrane distillation technology, which is a new method of treating hydrofracturing wastewater used to release methane in Marcellus shale, which is prevalent in Western Pennsylvania, and Utica shale rock formations. Pitt is partnering with Pittsburgh-based EQT, a natural gas company, and Aquatech International LLC, a wastewater treatment and recycling and reuse company based in Canonsburg, along with firms in Boston and Virginia.

Pitt also is conducting research on how to leverage the waste heat available at drilling sites and natural gas compressor stations to safely treat shale gas wastewater for reuse. Texas A&M and the University of Texas and U.S. Clean Water Technology also are involved. The energy department gave Pitt $700,000 to support efforts by the Pitt team, which received $445,000 to expand this study to the Permian Basin of West Texas.

The vast amount of water used to fracture the rock formations to extract the methane contains various chemicals. The wastewater that flows back to the surface contains radioactive materials, salts and metals

Because the unconventional drilling in the oil and natural gas industries generates a great amount of waste heat that is flared off, Radisav Vidic, chairman of Pitt’s civil and environmental engineering department, said that waste heat could be used in the methane distillation process, which is a key element of a mobile treatment system. Treating the water on site eliminates the need to transport it to another location for treatment and disposal. The treatment can produce high quality water that can be used for agriculture and other industries.

Joe Napsha is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Joe at 724-836-5252 or jnapsha@tribweb.com.

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