WVU researchers seek to recycle water from gas drilling operations

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10 March 2010

– MORGANTOWN, W.Va. Reduce-reuse-recycle, that is the concept behind research being conducted at West Virginia University to help limit the environmental impact of the development of one of the nation’s largest-ever natural gas reservoirs, the Marcellus Shale.

David Locke of FilterSure, Inc., Jen Fulton and Paul Ziemkiewicz of WV Water Research Institute at WVU’s National Research Center for Coal and Energy, William Fincham of the US DOE National Energy Technology Laboratory, and David Templet of Chesapeake Energy discuss Fulton and Ziemkiewicz’s research project to recycle brackish frac water resulting from Marcellus gas well drilling. FilterSure™ provided a process development unit (foreground) for the $1 million research project.

David Locke of FilterSure, Inc., Jen Fulton and Paul Ziemkiewicz of WV Water Research Institute at WVU’s National Research Center for Coal and Energy, William Fincham of the US DOE National Energy Technology Laboratory, and David Templet of Chesapeake Energy discuss Fulton and Ziemkiewicz’s research project to recycle brackish frac water resulting from Marcellus gas well drilling. FilterSure™ provided a process development unit (foreground) for the $1 million research project.

Paul Ziemkiewicz and Jen Fulton of the West Virginia Water Research Institute at the National Research Center for Coal and Energy at WVU have teamed with Filtersure™, Inc. to develop ways to clean up salt- and mineral-laden frac water from newly installed Marcellus Shale gas wells.

For Appalachian land and mineral rights owners from central West Virginia through New York, the Marcellus can mean additional income. And for just about everyone in the eastern U.S. who uses natural gas for home heating and cooking, the Marcellus can mean keeping gas prices affordable.

But for regulators throughout the region as well as for the companies who will be producing this clean energy resource, the Marcellus means new water challenges, namely how to meet the demand for the millions of gallons of water needed to produce the gas while protecting water quality.

Water is an essential ingredient for gas well development.

Drillers use fresh water plus small amounts of sand and additives to make frac water. The frac water is injected into the gas well to drive very fine cracks into the rock formation where the gas is trapped. The microscopic cracks, or fractures, are propped open by the sand which allows 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. Treatment to pristine levels though can be prohibitively expensive.

So Ziemkiewicz and Fulton proposed to treat the water to a standard that would make it useful as frac water all over again–a zero-discharge water management option for gas well development. “Our intention is to recycle frac water for reuse in drilling which will reduce the need for surface water,” said Ziemkiewicz.

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 to frac the next natural gas well.

The system will be small enough to be trucked to a gas well so that treatment can take place at the site. 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.

David Templet, director of regulatory affairs, and Scott Rotruck, vice president of corporate development and state government relations for Chesapeake Energy recently had the chance to see the pilot scale version of the filtration system in the labs at WVU’s National Research Center for Coal and Energy.

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

Rotruck, who introduced Ziemkiewicz to Dave Locke of Filtersure™ that led to the research partnership, noted the important role WVU plays in energy in West Virginia. “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 bolsters 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.”