Brigham Young University, Utah State University and University of Utah are known as the Energy Research Triangle that are collaborating on an alternative fuel project. Researchers and engineers collaborated to create an algae biofuel grown from large volumes of toxic fracking water.
Fracking is a water-intensive method of extracting natural gas from a shale layer.
“Ninety-three million barrels of wastewater were generated in the Uintah Basin in 2013,” said Ron Sims, a professor of biological engineering at USU who is a member of the Energy Research Triangle team.
He said water is essential in Utah, especially because it is the second driest state.
“Calling it waste is questionable in Utah,” Sims said.
Sims worked to find alternative sources of fuel, which included a toxic and water mixture generated from fracking, into a biofuel resource.
Pressurized water used to release the natural gas trapped in the shale, is either left underground or placed in a shallow evaporation pool. Sims said either way the contaminated water would contain carcinogens like benzene which is a naturally-occurring compound that creates ozone once evaporated.
The group introduced a type of microalgae, known as blue-green algae, also called cyanobacteria. This bacteria grew and was harvested, like a crop and then turned into biofuel.
“It's a microalgae that we actually found in the Logan wastewater treatment lagoons,” said Sims. “They grow in the Logan lagoons because we have lots of sunlight and lots of surface area.”
Algal biofuels are not new. It's growing the organism in this type of toxic, putrid water which is new. In a USU lab, Sims harvested the algae and introduced it into research ponds, where he said it grew exceptionally well.