Scientists at the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) are working to develop a means of treating wastewater using a biological approach. Stemming from a need to treat water contaminated during hydraulic fracturing processes, this system uses microbes to remove harmful pollutants in the water.
Drilling just one oil or natural gas well through hydraulic fracturing uses 1.5-16 million gallons of water. The fluid (known as produced water) that returns to the surface along with the oil or gas contains a variety of hydrocarbons, harsh salts, and industrial chemicals unsafe for regular use. This produced water is thus disposed of, often by being injected into disposal wells. Less than 1% of the produced water generated every year is reused.
Such a large waste of water in a time of climate change and depleting freshwater supplies dictates a need to find ways to treat the contaminated water. Chemicals and high-tech equipment have been used in some cases, but have not effectively solved the large problem of contaminated water. Harnessing the power of biology, in the form of microbes, may be the solution that we need.
During microbiological water treatment, microbes are used to metabolize toxic compounds into harmless byproducts, such as water, nitrogen gas, and carbon dioxide. In order for this process to be effective, scientists must first determine which species of microbes will break down the water contaminants, and grow that species in a container called a bioreactor. After the selected microbes have effectively broken down the contaminants, the remaining water is run through a filtration and disinfection system, which makes the water safe enough to be reintroduced into watersheds.
Microbial water treatment is not only cost-effective, it has also proven to be one of the most effective ways to remove contaminants from wastewater. However, it is time-intensive to go through the process of determining which microbes are capable of metabolizing which toxic compounds. One group based at the Colorado School of Mines (Mines) has spent years studying microbes from extreme environments in an effort to target microbe species that can survive in inhospitable environments such as produced water. The end goal of this work is to create a complete water treatment system that can clean produced water within 48 hours.
The Berkeley Lab is now working with the Mines group to address these water challenges. By next year, the team aims to begin cultivating microbes in bioreactors for testing. Once they have developed an effective microbiome, the Mines group will focus on creating a large-scale water treatment system that will work under a variety of conditions and variables. Such a system will be a huge advance in water treatment, helping to drastically increase the amount of wastewater that is treated and returned to the environment for reuse.
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