Innovative Virus-Based Treatment for Fracking Wastewater: A Sustainable Approach

by | May 3, 2024

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An estimated 168 billion gallons of wastewater—or produced water—is generated annually by the Permian Basin fracking industry, according to a 2022 report by the Texas Produced Water Consortium. Treating this primary waste stream poses significant challenges due to its chemical complexity. Researchers at The University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) have discovered a pioneering approach to address this issue, using bacteriophages—viruses that target and kill specific bacteria.

Cost-Effective and Eco-Friendly Treatment Solutions

Ramón Antonio Sánchez, a doctoral candidate in UTEP’s chemistry program and the first author of the study published in the journal Water, details how bacteriophages offer a rapid and economical treatment method for producing water on an industrial scale. This method not only aims to enhance the sustainability of water resources but also reduces the reliance on traditional disposal methods, such as underground injection post-oil exploration, which are prevalent in the oil and gas industry.

The research targets two common bacteria in produced water: Pseudomonas aeruginosa, known for corroding stainless steel and threatening infrastructure integrity, and Bacillus megaterium, which breaks down hydrocarbons. The treatment can improve operational efficiencies and infrastructure longevity within the industry by focusing on these bacteria.

Challenges and Future Prospects

Despite promising laboratory results inactivating both P. aeruginosa and B. megaterium, the application faces hurdles, including the limited availability of commercially suitable bacteriophages. The research team, led by Sánchez and including Zacariah Hildenbrand, Ph.D., a UTEP alum, is committed to expanding their study to cover more microorganisms in produced water and to adapt their laboratory success to field conditions.

Projects like these highlight UTEP’s growing reputation in research, which advances scientific understanding and has practical implications for industry practices. Ricardo Bernal, Ph.D., associate professor in UTEP’s Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry and Sánchez’s doctoral advisor, expressed pride in their students’ impactful work and the potential benefits it could bring to the industry and the environment.



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