Fracking System Cuts Carbon Footprint

Wednesday, May 28, 2014 @ 09:05 AM gHale

One of the arguments against fracking is there is such a huge unknown about its environmental affects, but now there is a new water treatment technology for gas extraction that could significantly reduce the environmental impact of hydraulic fracturing.

Advanced dialysis cells use excess carbon dioxide to desalinate waste water for reuse and also produce hydrochloric acid and carbonate salts as byproducts on site, which end up used in fracking and which drillers would have to purchase and transport long distances, said Alfred Lam, who was a project member during his doctoral studies at the University of British Columbia.

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Hydraulic fracturing — known as fracking — involves injecting large amounts of water, grit and chemicals into gas and oil wells under high pressure to fracture the rock and release natural gas. When the pressure release, millions of liters of contaminated, briny water backflows out of the well and must end up treated, said Lam, who is helping shepherd the project as an adviser for Vancouver-based Chrysalix Energy Venture Capital, which specializes in early-stage clean energy projects.

Waste carbon dioxide ends up produced by gas flaring and the operation of generators at well sites.

The process addresses carbon management and water desalination, while supplying a part of the industry’s chemical requirements.

“A lot of technologies look at these issues as two separate problems, but we are simultaneously addressing both of them,” said David Wilkinson, a professor of chemical and biological engineering at UBC and a member of the Clean Energy Research Centre.

“What is most striking about this technology is that it uses waste inputs to do the work of desalination and it produces high-value chemicals at the back end,” said Lam. “There are also situations at the front end, where the water available for fracking needs to be desalinated before being used.”

If the technology ended up applied across Alberta in tight oil and shale gas extraction at commercialization, it could reduce carbon dioxide emissions by more than one million metric tons per year and reduce fresh water use by more than two billion liters, he said.

By estimates, the system could mitigate about five kilograms of carbon dioxide per barrel of waste water treated and produce about two kilograms of carbonate salt and about 0.8 kilograms of hydrochloric acid per kilogram of carbon dioxide used in the reaction.

“These are chemicals you would normally find in frack fluid to produce tight oil or shale gas,” said Lam. “The producers then don’t have to source these materials from elsewhere and that further reduces the carbon footprint.”

The UBC team and Simon Fraser University collaborator Steven Holdcroft earned a $500,000 grant from the Climate Change and Emissions Management Corporation to scale up and commercialize the system.

Researchers will test a larger version of the system in the lab using real backflow liquid recovered from oil and gas wells, before moving to field trials.

Lam expects portable, modular treatment systems to find a market in Alberta and the United States — where unconventional drilling and extraction require 367 billion liters of fresh water annually — and in British Columbia’s fast-expanding northern gas fields.

The provincial government is encouraging a massive expansion of the natural gas export industry to take advantage of liquefied natural gas prices in Asia that are three times higher than in North America.

If five LNG plants went up in British Columbia, the government estimates the industry could attract up to $98 billion in capital investment and create 75,000 permanent jobs by 2020. They also project the industry could generate $100 billion in new government revenue over 30 years.

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