WVU researchers seek to recycle water from gas drilling operations

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May 26, 2010 by West Virginia Water Research Institute

Morgantown, W.Va. — Prosperity may be lying just under the feet of many West Virginians, but getting it out of the ground also brings environmental hurdles.

However research being conducted at West Virginia University may provide a solution to the dilemma, benefiting both providers and users.

The Marcellus Shale, a geological formation stretching under West Virginia and much of the Appalachian Basin, is one of the nation’s largest reservoirs of natural gas, with at least one estimate saying it could provide cheap gas for the U.S. for 14 years.

But getting the gas out of the shale requires huge amounts of water, a precious resource itself, and leaves the water laden with salts and minerals.

The dilemma, then, has been how to get the gas with the least damage to water resources.

Paul Ziemkiewicz and Jen Fulton of the West Virginia Water Research Institute at the National Research Center for Coal and Energy at WVU are looking for a way, teaming with Filtersure Inc.

Drillers use fresh water plus small amounts of sand and additives to make frac water, which is then injected into the gas well to drive very fine cracks into the formation where the gas is trapped. The microscopic cracks, or fractures, are propped open by the sand, allowing the gas to escape to the surface where it is collected, cleaned, and then sent to homes, businesses, and industries.

But the frac water comes back to the surface containing solid particles, salts, and minerals from brine water that is also in the rock formation. This brine can be harmful if returned to streams without being treated, however treatment to pristine levels can be prohibitively expensive.

So Ziemkiewicz and Fulton propose to treat the water to a level that would allow it to be reused as frac water, resulting in no offsite discharge.

“Our intention is to recycle frac water for reuse in drilling which will reduce the need for surface water,” said Ziemkiewicz.

The $1 million, 32-month research and demonstration project is supported by an award from the U.S. Department of Energy National Energy Technology Laboratory under its Oil and Natural Gas Program.

Filtersure Inc. already has a unit that can remove solid particles suspended in the frac water, the first step in almost any water treatment process. The challenge facing the researchers is to remove enough of the salts and minerals so that the water can be reused on the next natural gas well.

The system will be small enough to be trucked to a gas well for on-site water treatment. Then, instead of trucking untreated frac water to a municipal wastewater treatment facility as is it is now, the recycled frac water will be trucked to the next gas well drilling site.

A pilot scale version of the system is being developed at NRCCE.

“Even though the natural gas industry is one of the most water efficient sources of energy, our goal is to reuse all of the water we produce in our Marcellus operations,” said David Templet, director of regulatory affairs for Chesapeake Energy Corp., the nation’s No. 2 natural gas producer and a significant member of the West Virginia energy industry.

“This recycling idea will be one more tool to help us meet that goal,” he said.

Scott Rotruck, Chesapeake’s vice president of corporate development and state government relations, introduced Ziemkiewicz to Filtersure’s Dave Locke, leading to the research partnership.

“University researchers like Paul and Jen help our industry push the innovation envelope. WVU has always worked to push technology for energy,” he said.

WVU Vice President of Research and Economic Development Curt M. Peterson said the research bolster’s the University’s commitment to community involvement and the search for greater energy independence.

“There is great recognition that America’s future depends upon an ability to use a mix of energy sources,” Peterson said. “Finding ways to use those sources in the cleanest most effective ways possible is good for West Virginia and good for the nation.”

-NRCCE-