Is “Frack” a Four-Letter Word?

By Adam Overland

That was the title of a presentation given this past February by U of M biotechnology professor Larry Wackett. At least in Germany, brewers believe that it is.

In a letter calling on their government for a moratorium on the practice, brewers there cited “Reinheitsgebot,” otherwise known as the Bavarian Beer Purity Law of 1516. Germans take their beer very, very seriously, and have for a long time.

Fracking is the hydraulic fracturing of shale rock layers buried deep inside the earth. Water and other liquids are forced into the ground some 6,000 to 9,000 feet below the earth’s surface to create cracks in the rock, which then release natural gas and oil into wells. The method has boosted U.S. oil and natural gas reserves significantly, but it requires vast amounts of water, which can reduce regional water supplies.

While there’s no fracking in Minnesota, there’s plenty going on nationwide. Development is occurring in 32 states, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.7 As of May 2012, at least 119 bills in 19 states have been introduced that address fracking and its wastewater.

In the meantime, from Larry Wackett’s point of view, fracking is happening, it’s creating wastewater, and it’s here to stay.

“Every projection you look at for world energy use…no one has a graph that’s going down. That’s reality. The lights are not going to go off…and people are going to extract energy in all different ways. At least for the time being, there’s going to be a ‘we use everything approach,’” said Wackett in his February presentation.

“What we’re interested in is the fact that a lot of water gets used, and we’d like to see a lot more of that get recycled and get cleaned up. That’s where biotechnology comes in. We think we can make some contribution,” he said.

Wackett is leading University of Minnesota research to develop biotechnology to purify fracking wastewater, by using naturally-occurring bacteria embedded in porous silica materials to biodegrade its contaminants. The goal is to make the water suitable for re-use in fracking other wells and significantly reduce the amount of water used by the industry.



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