Cleaning Fracking Wastewater with Microbes

Dr. Shwetha Acharya

Let’s begin with a true story. Stacey was a nurse and a single mom in a small US town, struggling to make ends meet. She leased out her land to an oil and gas company in the hope of a comfortable life. But once the fracking operations began, things went haywire. Her family fell sick inexplicably; the water from her well became unusable; the air choked her. She finally had to abandon her dream house and the town, just to survive. The culprit was a nearby faulty wastewater holding pond from which fracking wastewater had leaked into groundwater, contaminating her well. While most oil and gas companies deal with their waste more responsibly, this story highlights the real dangers of improper handling of fracking wastewater.

To give you a scale of this problem, the volume of fracking wastewater generated per year would easily fill more than 200,000 Olympic-size swimming pools. Additionally, this wastewater contains thousands of harmful chemicals; mainly crude oil-like organic compounds, heavy metals, radioactive elements and extremely high salt content. Treating this wastewater is an immense challenge, and it’s the focus of my research. Current treatment technologies are extremely energy intensive, so the wastewater is typically disposed of into deep underground wells, permanently removing huge quantities of water from the water cycle. We aim to promote reuse by treating fracking wastewater with nature’s ultimate cleaners, microbes. This approach involves the use of bioreactors teeming with microbes that can consume organic compounds from fracking wastewater making further treatment less energy intensive. However, bioreactors are sometimes unpredictable because the underlying microbial processes are not well understood.

To address this gap, our team has been running a bioreactor treating 100% fracking wastewater for over a year now. We have identified a handful of major microbial species that can consume organic compounds in the reactor, some of which are novel and have not been studied before. I have isolated many of these key microbial members and now studying them in the lab to derive vital clues to how these microbes work together in the reactor. These discoveries would enable us to improve performance and reliability of bioreactors, facilitating reuse of treated water. Our final goal is to develop compact bioreactors that could treat fracking wastewater at the source, so that no other Staceys have to abandon their homes.