The water dilemma around fracking in the oil patch is valued in the billions.
And entrepreneurs are quickly developing a suite of technologies to solve it.
The issue is both the quality of water—residents near oil and gas wells want 100% comfort that fracking does not contaminate their groundwater—and quantity. These wells use anywhere from 2 million (M) to 13M gallons per well, leaving parched states like Texas scrambling to encourage water conservation in the energy sector.
Which technologies will get adopted and be the winner in this multibillion dollar industry? For investors, the stakes are high. As a company gets discovered, its share price can have big runs—both GreenHunter (NYSE.A:GRH) and Ridgeline Environmental (TSX.V:RLE) have seen their share prices double in the last four months as investors begin to understand the potential of this space.
Wall Street and Canada’s Bay Street are both just starting to wrap themselves around this sector—deciding which horse (the technology) and which jockey (the management team)—to bet on.
As I explore this hot new sector, I’ll periodically update you on new technologies I see getting some traction in the market. Here’s a first look at a group of contenders in the water space.
Produced Water Absorbents (PWA)
It sounds like science fiction. The company actually invented a glass that can absorb organic material—such as hydrocarbons—from water, making it safe enough to drink.
"Osorb," as the glass substance is called, can swell to eight times its size as it absorbs materials from water.
Produced Water Absorbents CEO Stephen Spoonamore says that Osorb can be used for a variety of applications. . .but its ability to not affect salt and metal while performing its function makes it ideally suited for the oil and gas industry, according to industry trade magaazine RigZone.
One of the top benefits of Osorb is that it doesn’t leave toxic by-products, doesn’t require landfilling, and—on top of that—minimal energy is needed to use it. This presents an advantage, Spoonamore says, as disposal wells will not be needed for companies managing their water.
The substance was discovered by a graduate student working for Dr. Paul Edmiston, chairman of chemistry at the College of Wooster in Ohio, while trying to create a bomb-detection device.
"It works like a nanomechanical sponge," he says. "I've done trace analysis, and the water's totally clean."
Edmiston has an online video shows him mixing motor oil with water in a bottle, inserting some grains of Osorb, shaking it up, straining the swollen particles and then drinking the water.
Practical testing has also revealed positive results, as a prototype system using Osorb treated 60 gallons of water per minute, reducing its petroleum content from 227 milligrams per liter to just 0.1 milligrams per liter, according to Popular Mechanics.
The water is treated and then given back to customers as brine, which can be used for fracking, according to Rigzone.
PWA is in the process of opening a water treatment facility in Ohio to treat flowback water from the Utica shale, and has plans to open additional facilities in the coming years. Spoonamore says that the company is "very interested" in promoting Osorb for the Bakken and EagleFord plays as well, reports the news provider.
(PWA’s website: www.pwabsorbents.com. Video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=czZD-meOfkU.)
Rettew Flowback, Inc.
Chesapeake Energy Corp. recently unveiled a new wastewater treatment system in Ohio that it has been using to treat water from its operations in the area.
Rettew Flowback Inc. designed and operates the facility for Chesapeake. According to the Beacon Journal, the facility is the first of its kind in the state and can handle as much as 300 barrels (bbl) of waste per hour.
General manager of the facility Chris Foreman told the news provider that chemicals and filters clean about 95% of the wastewater, with the remaining 5% needing to go to a landfill for disposal.
The chemical used in the treatment is reportedly proprietary, but a 20-micron filter and a 5-micron filter are also used in the process.
Keith Fuller, Chesapeake Energy’s director of corporate development, says there are plans to add additional water treatment facilities in Ohio.
Consequently, it’s worth noting that recycling water in the Marcellus formation has reportedly saved Chesapeake some $6 million (M) per year.
(Rettew’s website: www.rettew.com/oil-and-gas/.)
Ecologix Environmental Systems
Atlanta-based Ecologix uses air flotation in a mobile treatment system, which is easily transported and set up on site.
"Dissolved air flotation" removes oil that is suspended in water by dissolving air into the wastewater under pressure and then releasing that air into a tank at atmospheric pressure. The air then forms bubbles that stick to the oil, floating to the surface where they are removed by skimming.
This system—which is focused on treating water from fracking—can treat up to 900 gallons of water per minute. (42 gallons = 1 bbl.)
A redesign of the system allows the treated water to be used again for fracking in a short period of time.
(Ecologix website: http://www.ecologixsystems.com/system-its.php.)
Abanaki Oil Skimmers
Most wastewater treatment methods require that the affected water at least be brought back to the surface before it is treated, but one Ohio-based company gets the process going before the water even sees the light of day.
Abanaki Oil Skimmers use a high-temp polymer belt for fracking sites. This belt—which is able to withstand temperatures of 180 degrees Fahrenheit continuously—is attached to an engine of sorts and is put down into the well. The machine is turned on and the moving belt pulls oil and other contaminants from the flowback water as it reaches the surface. It may be useful to think of it as a long belt attached to an outboard motor that you put down the well.
"Oil skimmers work by making use of the differences in specific gravity and surface tension between oil and water," says the company. "These physical characteristics allow the belts to attract oil and other floating hydrocarbon liquids from the surface of the fluid. Abanaki belt oil skimmers can be used in applications as deep as 100 feet."
According to Abanki this method is economical due to its low-energy use and low maintenance and can be operated 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
(Abanki website: http://www.abanaki.com/industries-fracking.html. Product animation: http://www.abanaki.com/petrox_animation.html.)
Ridgeline Energy Services (TSX.V:RLE; OTCQX:RGDEF)
The nature of science is such that it is common that the initial intended use of a technology is not what it is ultimately used for. That is the case for Ridgeline Water Inc.—a division of Ridgeline Energy Services Inc.—and its water treatment solution. . .which uses a method developed for extracting biofuels from fat.
During the middle of the 2000s, American engineer Dennis Danzik created a technology that could extract biofuels from cooking oils deposited in grease traps used by restaurants at a relatively low cost. Over 90% of the fluid processed is water, which is a byproduct that has to be disposed of. In order to keep the process cost effective, Danzik refined his process so that the water ended up being cleaned enough for safe economical discharge.
Here, Ridgeline saw an opportunity to address the growing need in the oil and gas industry to treat the tremendous amount of water that returns to the surface after hydraulic fracturing and the larger volumes of produce water that flow to surface.
Ridgeline worked with Danzik to develop the method that relies on electro-catalytic technology. Essentially what this means is that electricity and catalysts—a substance that effects a chemical reaction—are used to cause reactions that enable the bonds between water and contaminates to be separated.
Danzik's innovation works in a slightly different way than most wastewater treatment methods, as it is used at the beginning of the treatment process. By using the method early, the contaminants can be separated from the water. Then the water is better prepared when it goes through a more traditional treatment process, such as reverse osmosis, which, in layman’s terms, separates contaminants by passing the liquid through a sieve (membrane). The electro-catalytic step allows for such processes to more efficiently separate the water from, hydrocarbons, totally dissolved solids (TDS) or other unwanted substances.
The company touts the low-energy output required by this step, as the water does not need to be excessively heated. The bonds are broken, "cracked" without the need of large amounts of energy.
(Ridgeline website: www.ridgelinecanada.com.)
Regards, the Oil & Gas Investments Bulletin Research Team
Disclosure: Keith Schaefer owns Ridgeline stock in the Oil & Gas Investments Bulletin portfolio.