Friday 15 May 2015

Persistent Drought Challenges Fracking - Feature Article - Executive Commentary

By: Dennis P. Calvert
President and CEO of BioLargo, Inc.

Link to Article Here

Historically, freshwater has been the base fluid essential for fracking, sweeping, and oil sands recovery because it has been abundant, readily available, and it has cost very little.  Unfortunately, that is now changing as a longer than expected global drought is causing the industry to examine new options and technologies to find new sources of water.

In the pursuit of our belief at BioLargo, Inc., (BLGO) that ‘everybody deserves affordable clean water’, we have developed and are introducing the breakthrough AOS Filter™ currently in commercial pilot testing at the University of Alberta.  The invention is expected to impact the entire water industry because it has delivered unprecedented results in both decontamination and disinfection.

Prompted by attention-getting results, BioLargo was invited by the Canadian government and NSERC, Natural Sciences & Engineering Research Council of Canada, Industrial Research Chair to help clean very large amounts of toxic produced water from oil sands recovery operations in Canada.  BioLargo cofounded the chair with Suncor, Syncrude, Shell, Canadian Natural Resources, Total, Epcor, Alberta Innovates, Alberta Environment and the University of Alberta.

Based on data from decades of observations, NASA scientists have been predicting the current global drought and warning that it may intensify throughout the balance of this century and could become the worst drought of the past 1,000 years.  Since 2002, NASA’s GRACE satellites have measured massive groundwater losses around the globe.  Using over 20,000 monitoring wells the USGS has confirmed groundwater losses all across the nation and in central California of 5 feet in just one month and 200 feet in the past few years.  The following 11-year chart from NASA demonstrates declining groundwater globally and includes the central valley of the United States.

Image by J.T. Reager, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

The following chart is from the U.S. Drought Monitor and demonstrates the severity of the current drought that is sure to impact heavy fracking operations in California.

If NASA predictions continue to ring true, new sources to replace freshwater for fracking and oil sands recovery will certainly be required and new technologies to enable using those new water sources cost-effectively become essential.

Vikram Rao spent more than 30 years with Halliburton serving as senior vice president and Chief Technology Officer and is a Senior Technical Advisor to BioLargo.  Dr. Rao points out, “massive amounts of water used in new wells and in sweeping or flooding secondary recovery operations do not need to be freshwater.  Reused water and underground brackish water are two obvious sources for replacement.  In fact, brackish water is even preferred over freshwater if its salinity is close to 5,000 parts per million, (PPM).”

According to Dr. Rao, “for drilling operations, a little salinity will prevent swelling of clay and since clay is a component of shale, preventing swelling is useful in the drilling and fracturing phases of operations.  For water flooding, a little salinity is useful in unlocking oil from the formation.  A technical explanation is that the salinity has to be monovalent, such as from Na (sodium).  In one mechanism, oil is bound to the rock by a divalent species.  The monovalent exchanges ions thus releasing the oil from the rock.”

Dr. Rao elaborates, “a single well can require as much as 6 million gallons of water and about one-third of that amount returns to the surface as flowback water that potentially can be treated and reused.  Before the flowback can be reused, it must be treated to reduce the high salinity that can range between 15,000 and 250,000 PPM and it must treated with cost effective disinfection to manage the high levels of bacteria.”

Brackish groundwater is abundant almost everywhere and within reasonable depths for harvesting.  With typical saline levels of close to 5,000 PPM it appears to be the best choice for replacing freshwater.  The following USGS map indicates how vast brackish groundwater is in the United States.  Note that the white areas do not indicate an absence of brackish groundwater but instead indicate that those areas have not yet been measured and mapped.


As plentiful and available as brackish groundwater is, it has obvious obstacles of sulphates and subsurface bacteria.  According to Tommy Taylor with Fasken’s Oil & Ranch drillers, the largest private driller in Texas, "The problem with this particular water is that it has sulfate in it.  If the sulfate combines with barium and strontium — elements that are found in underground water lying alongside underground oil and gas formations — the sulfate can ruin your well.” 

Ken Code, the Chief Science Officer of Biolargo, Inc. and Vikram Rao both agree that subsurface bacteria from backflow and brackish groundwater can pose dangers with ancient species of bacteria that have evolved and become anaerobic from living at depths without oxygen for so long that they could turn out to be a major nightmare once released to the surface where oxygen is plentiful. 

A very small number of drillers are already using brackish groundwater in place of freshwater for drilling operations and sweeping.  Mr. Taylor confirms that the owner of Faskin’s Oil & Ranch wants to preserve their freshwater aquifer and his operation is now using membrane technology to desalinate brackish groundwater from the deeper Santa Rosa Aquifer and chlorine dioxide to disinfect any potential bacteria.  They also have to treat the water for removal of sulphates.

Chlorine dioxide is a gas that is highly toxic and can be lethal.  In addition to the apparent dangers, the cost to install the infrastructure to inject this gas into water must be taken into consideration as well as the cost of maintenance, operation and the cost of the chlorine itself.

Chlorine dioxide may be today’s first choice to disinfect brackish groundwater, but the industry wants a solution that is better and they want it at a lower cost. Other disinfection technologies such as UV treatment, chemicals or advanced oxidation systems are available, but they are expensive and, in the end, the most cost-effective and safest technology will become the new gold standard.

Reverse osmosis is today’s most cost-effective technology to desalinate the brackish ground water and the flowback, but the biggest obstacles to using brackish water is still the high cost of energy requirements for RO treatment, and the cost of degradation of membranes associated with biofilm management.  Hiroko Kasama, lead consultant for Global Water Intelligence believes biofouling is one of the most significant challenges in RO desalination because biofilm from bacteria growth on the filter surfaces causes clogging that greatly increases energy requirements and it also shortens the filters lives requiring more frequent replacement of costly membrane filters. 

Brackish groundwater and flowback water are already being used by a handful of drillers and operators as replacements for freshwater and are living proof that it can be done.  The rising pressure on conserving and managing fresh water sources will push demand for cost-effective solutions that enable these replacement strategies to be deployed.  New technologies should be expected to work better than chlorine dioxide and current desalination biofilm disrupters, and they absolutely must cost less.

Brackish groundwater and backflow water may be the best and are arguably the only viable options to replace the vanishing freshwater.
BioLargo has developed the next generation water treatment technology to address the need for lower cost desalination; cost effective high-level water disinfection; and, removal of sulphates and a host of contaminants like aeromatics such as napthenic acids and BTEX commonly associated with fracking and petroleum derivatives.
BioLargo’s AOS Filter is being showcased at a symposium this August at the University of Alberta.

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