Rice University Study Suggests New Approach Needed to Address Fracking Wastewater

Two Rice University scientists published a study on August 13, 2014 examining the chemical makeup of produced water generated from hydraulic fracturing wells. The authors conducted a detailed analysis of produced water from the Barnett (NM), Marcellus (PA) and Eagle Ford (TX) formations, concluding that the industry should focus on nonchemical treatments of fracking wastewater.

Flowback and produced water related to fracking activities are commonly disposed of via surface-level waste pits or injection wells, which carry the associated risks of groundwater contamination or possibly induced seismic activity. These disposal methods also ignore the potential for reusing produced water in the fracking process. The authors of the Rice report argue that an environmentally friendly and cost effective approach to recycling produced water can be achieved by 1) identifying the chemical components of produced water, and 2) prescribing an appropriate physical filtration system to make the water appropriate for re-injection at the well site. The recycling and reuse approach could save millions of gallons of freshwater and reduce the risk of groundwater contamination through conventional wastewater disposal methods.


One might expect the conclusions of this study to receive negative feedback from the fracking industry, as on-site recycling typically increases the cost burden for fracking well operators. However, in an article in Chemistry World, a distinguished engineering advisor at the Apache Corporation called the study “refreshing,” adding that he “believes that industry can benefit from working with academia to find fit-for-purpose solutions to recycling produced waters from fracturing.” The authors believe the study could also be beneficial to emerging international hydraulic fracking developers who may want to include recycling systems in their new operations.

The Rice study coincides with a report out of the University of Texas San Antonio and Southwest Research Institute, where a team of researchers claim to have found an inexpensive way to filter fracking wastewater using biochar. Biochar consists of agricultural waste products like woodchips, paper, leaves and oils, which are heated in an oxygen-free environment to form a charcoal-like substance. Biochar can absorb hydrocarbons and other harmful elements of fracking wastewater, like biocides.

Written by Stratecon Staff