Cleared up: Ecosphere CEO Robbie Cathey holds up a jar full of dark untreated water, and cloudy water that’s been treated with his company’s technology. The treated water isn’t safe to drink, but it’s good enough for fracking.
Ecosphere’s process replaces the biocides and descaling agents typically used in fracking water with an ozone-based treatment. Ozone itself isn’t benign, but Ecosphere produces it on site, so it doesn’t have to be transported, which reduces the chance of spills, the fuel needed for transport, and the wear and tear on roads—a major problem for communities with large fracking operations. The process lets well operators recycle water, reducing the total amount consumed and the amount of waste material that needs to be disposed of.
The use of ozone to treat water isn’t new, but it hasn’t been used much in part because it’s expensive. Ecosphere has found ways to reduce the amount of ozone needed by 90 percent. It uses a combination of approaches. First it flows water through proprietary structures that cause tiny bubbles to form and collapse—which is called cavitation. It also uses ultrasound to create more cavitation. In both cases, this breaks up biological contaminants in the water, making the ozone more effective, and creates free radicals that themselves help disinfect the water. The final step is to run an electrical current through the water, which causes some of the salts in the water to precipitate, reducing scaling. The process is cheaper than some other alternatives, such as UV treatment and desalination, the company says.
There’s a limit to how much Ecosphere’s process can reduce water use, says James Bolander, a senior vice president at Southwestern Energy, a fracking company that uses Ecosphere’s technology. In some cases, it can treat all of the water that flows back out of a fracking well. But most of the water used in fracking stays down in the well, he says, and that needs to be replaced with more fresh water for the next well.