The massive and cheap natural gas supply discovered in recent years in the U.S. is fundamentally changing the landscape of American energy. But there’s one big problem, which has been making headlines as of late: the issues with water pollution potentially associated with natural gas fracking. However, the problem has not gone unnoticed as a major opportunity for cleantech investors and startups.
Fracking is the act of injecting water and chemicals deep into the ground to break up rocks and release natural gas, or oil. While the natural gas industry has long maintained that the process doesn’t result in tainted water aquifers and drinking water, reports like the one in the New York Times this week, suggest otherwise. The Times report uncovered at least one documented case of contaminated drinking water back in the ’80s, and suggests that there could be more.
In an interview this week with VantagePoint Capital Partner and Founder Alan Salzman, he told me that he sees technology that can help solve the clean water issue for fracking as an upcoming hot area for investment. “We think the limiting factor for gas fracking is water. We’re not gas people, and we’re not oil people. But we are water people,” said Salzman. He declined to name any specific company the fund is backing or looking at.
A company called ABSMaterials has been working on the problem of cleaning liquids involved with fracking. The company uses sand-like particles to absorb chemicals, and the company says it can remove 99 percent of oil and grease from water in fracking fluid, and another 90 percent of the toxic chemicals like benzene and xylenes.
The company, which was founded in 2009, has several pilot projects in the works and is funded by the Department of Energy’s Small Business Innovation Research Program. The company’s glass expanding, absorbing product is called Osorb.
Conglomerate GE is also working on more environmental methods of recovering and reusing water from natural gas fracking and is working with the DOE on research, too. GE makes water filtration products like its mobile evaporator, which can enable water recycling at the fracking site, GreenBiz recently reported.
Despite any environmental problems with natural gas fracking, the process isn’t going away any time soon. Natural gas emits fewer carbon emissions when burned than coal, and like coal, natural gas can be used in power plants as base load generation. One day it will be the dominant source for electricity in the U.S. Finding solutions now to the environmental drawbacks of fracking, will be crucial.