UT-ORNL’s Governor’s Chair for Environmental Biotechnology Terry Hazen is in the planning stages for what he hopes will become UT’s second Engineering Research Center (ERC) funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF). His most recent grant, “Engineering Research Center for Protecting and Advancing Water-Energy-Environment and Sustainability (PAWES),” is a one-year planning grant intended to lay the foundation for bringing a broad multi-institutional initiative to campus that seeks to address grand challenges related to hydrocarbon production and transforming hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” practices.
With funding for a new ERC, UT would serve as the leading institution under Hazen’s guidance. Research collaborations are already underway from Colorado State University and Juniata College in Pennsylvania. Apart from developing systems to remediate water, one of the goals of a future ERC focused on fracking would be to share information with companies that can help inform sound decision-making that bear an impact on water quality public health.
Fracking involves creating horizontal wells deep underground to extract oil and natural gas. The extraction process involves injecting fluids that can contain upwards of 1200 chemicals. This fluid then flows back with oil and gas, which then gets separated out and funneled into pipes. Some of these chemicals serve the purpose of preventing corrosion in the pipes by preventing bacterial growth, but they are also known for being quite toxic. The flowback fluid contains biocides that destroy living organisms and can create antibiotic resistance in waterways.
While horizontal wells have been used for a long time, they have not been used in shales that contain oil and gas until the last decade or so. Now that fracking has taken off, the US has actually become energy independent. However, states that have the most fracking wells are dealing with some side effects. Because of the boom in the fracking industry that has allowed a lot of smaller companies to reap profits fairly quickly, there has been an uptick in illegal dumping of flowback fluid. In fact, sometimes companies have even gotten permission to dump this flowback fluid into streams. In addition to water quality issues, in places where many wells are located near one another, there have been recorded seismic events, or manmade earthquakes.
One of the methods that Hazen wants to explore for remediating the water involves a patented process he developed more than 20 years ago that involves using methane as a feedstock. Some bacteria feed off of methane, and so by adding it to the flowback fluid, and then removing the methane, it triggers the bacteria’s ability to continue degrading the toxins to remediate the water.
The current planning grant is for $100,000 for one year. After this grant expires, Hazen will enter the next phase of seeking long-term funding for a UT-based ERC.