Frontiers: Is frac(k) a four-letter word?


What do prehistoric cave dwellers and today’s humans have in common? The ongoing quest for fuel sources. Humans have always had an energy crisis, said Larry Wackett, IonE resident fellow and professor at the BioTechnology Institute, at the first Frontiers seminar of the spring semester: Is Frac(k) A Four-Letter Word?

Today most of the energy we use comes from CO2 – generating fossils fuels, such as oil. But burning natural gas produces less COthan burning oil does, so the spike in natural gas extraction through hydraulic fracturing, commonly known as “fracking,” promises to dramatically reduce CO2 emissions, according to Wackett. Proponents of fracking also point to its economic benefits, such as reducing the price of natural gas for consumers and providing jobs.

Fracking carries environmental and health threats as well, however. It requires the use of fracking fluid, a slurry of millions of gallons of water and petrochemicals. The fluid is pumped underground to crack the shale that’s holding the gas, releasing it for extraction.  The by-product is a toxic sludge of frack water that can’t be reused or safely discarded.

“There is a pressing need to solve these water issues,” Wackett said. The challenge, he said, is to clean up the water so it can be reused in other fracking projects. He and his team thinks bacteria can meet that challenge.  They took a lesson from the Deep Water Horizon oil spill, where endemic bacteria “ate” oily particles and cleaned up the water in the Gulf of Mexico faster than experts anticipated.

The idea is to intentionally introduce carefully chosen bacteria to the frack water. According to Wackett, different bacteria target different groups of chemicals. “We can test thousands of frack water chemicals in a day, and know theoretically what compounds can be degraded by which bacteria,” he said. The chosen bacteria are encapsulated in silica beads to prevent them from escaping into the water. Frack water is then infused into the beads, where enzymes in the bacteria would degrade the pollutants.

Like to learn more? Watch the archived video of Wackett’s lively talk here. And join us at noon next Wednesday in St. Paul or live online for the second Frontiers in the Environment talk of the season – “Watersheds: Clean Water, Wild Places and Healthy Communities” by Trout Unlimited Alaska Office director Tim Bristol.

Monique Dubos is a freelance writer and photographer. She currently works at the University of Minnesota. Photo by Skytruth vis Flickr (Creative Commons).