Oil prices are at a five-year low, and analysts are predicting that they’ve yet to hit rock bottom. The America Petroleum Institute (API) credits fracking with increasing the supply of oil and gas and the resulting drop in prices. The industry is now faced with the question of how to survive on rapidly shrinking margins.

The oil and gas business has always been a water business, with water-oil ratios averaging 8:1. Fracking has accentuated the impact of water on the bottom line. The cost of managing water, from sourcing freshwater to trucking away wastewater for disposal, can cost from an average of $9/bbl up to a high of $26/bbl of water, according to Jefferies analysts. As the price of oil drops, water is becoming an increasing and even dominant share of fracking operations. Forward-thinking operators are adopting advanced wastewater treatment and recycling technology that can greatly mitigate this cost center.

Solutions are emerging that reduce the expenses associated with water management and also reduce fracking’s impact on our freshwater supply, providing a dual benefit for oilfield operators. Implementing an advanced water technology is no longer just an environmental argument; it’s an economic one. Already reuse rates in the Marcellus Basin have jumped to 90% since a water discharge regulation rocked the market in 2010. A new report from Bluefield Research predicts wastewater treatment spending for fracking is expected to grow threefold from $138 million in 2014 to $357 million in 2020. The report also predicts technology will be a primary force behind greater water reuse in operations over the next five years.

The state of frack water today

The two types of wastewater generated from oil and gas wells are produced and frack flowback water.

Frack flowback is the roughly 25% of water used in fracking operations that resurfaces within the first few weeks following injection, while produced water is what naturally comes to the surface with the oil or gas over the lifetime of the well. Over time, produced water more closely resembles the surrounding formation’s chemistry.

While the produced water is naturally contaminated from the reservoir, the flowback water is contaminated from the chemicals used in fracking as well as naturally occurring contaminants.

Both types of water total an enormous amount of water. The U.S. Department of Energy reports an average of 8 bbl of water are “produced” or brought to the surface for every barrel of oil. The variability of water quality and sheer amount of wastewater has been a major roadblock in cost-effectively managing wastewater at hydraulic fracturing operations.

Typically, operators dispose of the contaminated water in evaporation and disposal ponds, incurring a significant expense. Trucking and disposal costs can range from $1 to $17 on the high end, according to Jefferies. And yet disposal is only part of operational water expenses. Oilfield managers also must purchase freshwater and truck it to the wellhead for operations. Total freshwater costs range between $0.75/bbl and $9.75/bbl, according to Jefferies.

Panning for gold in wastewater

Viable water recycling technologies are the “new frontier” for site operators. A cost-effective recycling technology could reduce or eliminate trucking and disposal costs and the continuous demand for freshwater resources. A number of companies are stepping up to the plate and offering treatment and reuse systems solutions.

OriginOil offers a primarily nonchemical solution. The technology, called Electro Water Separation (EWS), removes oils, suspended solids, insoluble chemicals and bacteria from frack flowback and produced water. Contaminated water, along with the oil or gas from the wellhead, typically passes through a three-phase separator or API skim tank. The separated water, which is still contaminated with suspended solids and 1% to 2% oil, then enters EWS.

There are three distinct phases to EWS that occur in two hardware stages: electro-coagulation, electro-flotation and, in synergy, electro-oxidation. The first hardware stage destabilizes emulsion and neutralizes the electrostatic charge of nonsoluble hydrocarbons and suspended solids. In this stage, solids and organic contaminants clump together through agglomeration and flocculation.

The stream of coagulated particulates then flows into the second hardware stage, the electro-flotation chamber, where the less dense materials—organic contaminants—are lifted from the stream for extraction while heavy solids settle out for evacuation.

Finally, electro-oxidation resulting from both these stages disinfects bacteria and oxidizes dissolved organic materials and hydrocarbons.

The result is effluent-quality water that downstream technologies can easily treat to remove dissolved materials for site-specific reuse applications.

Typical electro-coagulation systems achieve neither electro-flotation nor electro-oxidation. This often results in a batch process requiring settling that limits scalability, boosts capex and uses up scarce onsite real estate.

Since EWS integrates all three electro-chemical processes into a single low-energy, primarily chemical-free module, treatment is continuous and highly scalable: Whatever comes in comes out at the same rate, enabling instant reuse without storage. Finally, this removal of oil and solids enables downstream filters and membranes to run effectively and affordably without particulates in the water clogging their functionality.

EWS controls performance with a SCADA system. The SCADA can monitor specific water parameters and make real-time adjustments to control the electromagnetic pulse characteristics for maximum efficiency and minimum energy usage. The SCADA also controls the production and propulsion of the high-concentration density bubble flotation employed to improve effluent water quality.

Deploying a water recycling system

EWS is being integrated into existing complete water treatment and reuse systems by licensees in oil-producing regions worldwide.

To deploy the technology for the immediate needs of service companies and to jumpstart licensees, OriginOil developed the CLEAN-FRAC product line, which integrates EWS with downstream polishing technologies that deliver a solution for the reuse specified for each project.

CLEAN-FRAC has been tested across water of varying qualities from shale plays across the globe. It is available in capacities up to 10,000 bbl/d. For licensee Gulf Energy of Oman, OriginOil is building a 5,000 bbl/d system as a field-scale mobile system to respond to the country’s progressive water treatment regulations.

OriginOil also completed testing of EWS on disposal well water from the Permian Basin in Texas. The water quality during the test period varied widely on a daily basis. Despite this challenge, OriginOil’s EWS reliably eliminated turbidity.

Operators looking into various recycling systems available are likely to come across systems that overtreat water, which in the end is more expensive than hauling or disposing. They also will likely find systems that remove beneficial monovalent salts or, on the other hand, undertreat wastewater, which requires excessive maintenance in the long term due to inflicted damage on well equipment and clogging of membranes and filters. Understanding the difference in end water quality produced by varying recycling systems is a critical consideration for operators.

Technology ushers new era of water-wise fracking operations

For a long time water was seen purely as an environmental issue. Now advanced technologies are turning the tide for water recycling at hydraulic fracturing operations. With prices continuing to drop, water recycling technologies can help operators cut costs and boost margins, ensuring economic and sustainable operations for operators eager to stay ahead of the curve.