An Oregon State University-Cascades researcher armed with nearly $3 million in federal funding is looking to make the wastewater generated by fracking more usable.
Late last year, Bahman Abbasi, an assistant professor of energy systems engineering at OSU-Cascades, received $2.97 million from U.S. Department of Energy to spearhead a team that will develop a portable device designed to treat gray water created by hydraulic fracturing, more commonly known as fracking. The team includes representatives from three universities — OSU-Cascades, University of Nevada-Reno and Michigan State University — and seven countries.
Abbasi and his team said they’re hopeful that the technology will help convert the estimated 51 billion cubic meters of wastewater that fracking operations are projected to produce in the next 10 years into something more useful.
“If there’s anything we can do to make this process even a little bit cleaner, I think it’s worth it,” said Hannah O’Hern, a Ph.D. student at OSU in Corvallis working with Abbasi’s team on the project.
Fracking is a technique that uses pressurized liquid injected into a hole drilled in the earth to fracture rock below the earth’s surface and remove oil and natural gas more easily.
The industry has grown rapidly in parts of America where natural gas and oil are key industries, but it has been criticized by environmentalists for its negative effects on the environment, including contaminating underground water sources.
Abbasi said the specific contaminants vary by company and by region, but added that there are hundreds of types of pollutants present in the wastewater, including oil byproducts that aren’t easy to remove.
Abbasi has worked on a variety of environmental projects, including desalination, the process of removing saline and other chemicals from saltwater.
He began looking at fracking several years ago, and noticed that there’s not much research regarding the large volume of wastewater the program generates.
After a lengthy application process, Abbasi was notified in November that has project had received funding from Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, a federal agency that funds innovative energy technology. The grant establishes a three-year timeline for Abbasi and his team to develop and build a model.
After the fracking is completed, the pressure in the hole drilled in the ground is released, causing wastewater to flow back up to the surface. Abbasi envisions a 3-by-3-foot cube that absorbs and vaporizes the wastewater as a way to remove many of the dangerous chemicals before condensing the now-uncontaminated water. The water may never be potable, but Abbasi said it would likely be useful in irrigation or industrial operations.
Still, there are number of challenges that need to be ironed out. Abbasi said access to energy is a challenge. Because a lot of fracking occurs in very rural parts of the country, Abbasi said it doesn’t make sense for companies to treat water onsite. Therefore, any solution needs to be able to travel and able to function in areas without reliable electricity.
“You have to be mobile; you have to be portable,” Abbasi said.
Additionally, James Klausner, a member of the team and the chair of the mechanical engineering department at Michigan State University, said the variety of contaminants in the water affects the evaporation point of the water.
Abbasi said he expects that the process could remove more than 95 percent of the contaminants in the water, but acknowledged that some resilient contaminants may require other measures to remove.
“At the end of the day, we’d like to be able to do remediation of 100 percent, but we might not get there,” Klausner added.
In order to achieve his goals, Abbasi relied on his connections on other continents to put together a team. Ultimately, the team includes representatives from China, Germany, India, Iran, Nigeria and Sudan, in addition to the United States. O’Hern said she’s excited to work on a team containing so many perspectives.
“This is definitely the most diverse team I’ve ever been a part of,” O’Hern said.
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