Pittsburgh Company Cleans Fracking Water Through Distillation

Feb 2, 2016

A Pittsburgh-based company is aiming to make the fracking process safer for the environment with an innovative approach to water purification, by reducing the need to transport contaminated water and byproducts from drill sites.

In parts of Washington and Greene counties, residents in rural areas often hear the rumble of trucks traveling to and from fracking sites. Many of the trucks are used to haul water, which is an important element in the process.

Gordon Craig, of Epiphany Water Solutions, recently took WESA on a tour of an active well pad about 1 mile off of Interstate 79. The well is owned by Rice Energy, one of the companies now using Epiphany's new water purification systems.

The Rice Energy well pad is relatively new; therefore, it produces more natural gas than most.

"I'd say about 40 to 50 barrels a day and a barrel is about 42 gallons," Craig said.

The fracking process produces more than gas. In fact, the most controversial byproduct may be water, because it's contaminated with things like barium, radium and more salt than is fit for human consumption. It's called "produced water."

"It's brown and orange and yucky," said Tom Joseph, founder and CEO of Epiphany Water Solutions.

Joseph started the company six years ago to provide drinking water to third-world countries, by using a solar-powered generator that he invented to convert salt water.

"Then, out of the blue one day, we get a phone call from an engineer at Consol Energy," said Joseph.

When news of Epiphany's distiller spread to people in the oil and gas industry, a light bulb went off.

"He said, 'If that system can really do what you say, and if it really works off the grid, and they're small and portable and all that stuff, then there's huge opportunity for you here in the fracking industry,'" said Joseph.

Yet, the engineers at Epiphany had one big issue to resolve.

“Our systems are designed to be solar-powered and we live in Pittsburgh. We’re lucky if we get 100 sunny days a year," explains Joseph.

So they had to redesign their invention to run on a generator powered by the very natural gas being pumped from the shale.

"So what we do is we take that salt water, which also contains these other contaminates, and we distill it," said Craig.

The distilled water is cleaner than tap water. So after it's boiled and separated, it gets piped back into the atmosphere through evaporators with large fans, set up right there at the well pad.

"What's left behind is crystallized salt and it comes out in the form of like beach sand," said Joseph.

By crystallizing the rest of the contaminated water, the volume shrinks by about 80 percent. So the big trucks still have to haul it away, but with far fewer trips to the landfill.

The entire process, Joseph said, is much safer for the environment, but he's already looking toward the future. If he can neutralize the contaminates left in the crystallized salt, it could then be recycled as concentrated road salt.

In the meantime, the fracking industry is just now beginning to embrace the technology. With the downturn in natural gas prices and demand, companies are looking for more efficient ways to dispose of waste.

"It's a win for everybody and the timing was just right for us," said Joseph.

In this week's Tech Report calendar:

  • Federal Prosecutors in Pittsburgh want an Indiana man to go to prison for sending millions of illegal spam messages to cell phones and computers. The FBI charged Phillip Fleitz, 31, of Indianapolis and a dozen other US residents with marketing illegal computer skills on a cyber criminal site back in July.
  • President Obama is asking Congress for $4 Billion over the next three years to teach computer science. The White House singles out Elizabeth Forward and South Fayette school districts as part of a select group of schools nationwide excelling in programming code through the League of Innovative Schools and Digital Promise.