Three scientists are developing a new treatment for cleaning water used in shale-gas production.

Kelvin Gregory, an assistant professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, working in collaboration with University of Pittsburgh engineering professors Radisav Vidic and Eric Beckman, received a $1 million grant from the Department of Energy over the next 3 years to develop a system to improve the use of hydraulic fracturing by drilling companies.

"The boom in drilling for natural gas across northern Pennsylvania has created a potential flood for how water is handled safely and responsibly during the drilling process,'' says Gregory.

A huge supply of natural gas is trapped in the Marcellus Shale layer that runs beneath northern Pennsylvania. Recent advances in technology – like hydraulic fracturing – have enabled recovery of natural gas from the Marcellus Shale layer. Hydraulic fracturing is used by many gas development companies to get gas from geological structures by pumping fluids at high pressure into the ground and fracturing subsurface rock. This water returns to the surface as flowback – with chemicals that are potentially harmful to the environment.

Because of environmental concerns, Gregory's team is evaluating a holistic approach for treatment of flowback water that utilizes acid mine drainage water to remove toxic metals from the water, and enables reuse of hydro-fracturing fluids. Reuse of these fluids is expected to greatly minimize the environmental risk from flowback water, and reduce the volumes of freshwater withdrawn for hydraulic fracturing.

Already one small rural Pennsylvania town has filed a lawsuit claiming one drilling company of violating state environmental laws by allowing drilling chemicals to escape from gas wells, where hydraulic fracturing is being used.

"We need to develop a system to minimize the disposal costs for gas producers and make water safe for all users,'' says Gregory, who is responsible for the development of a new remediation technology based on electrochemical cells.