By Velda Addison, Hart Energy

A team of University of Houston graduate students tackled water usage in fracking operations and came out the victor of an innovation competition sponsored by Power Across Texas.

By harnessing geothermal energy from decommissioned wells the UH team, which called itself GeoThermH2O, devised a winning way to lower the cost of water treatment.

The idea was to use and recirculate a small volume of water in a closed loop system in a decommissioned well to power a desalination unit to clean and recover frack water, according to a news release. The process would enable about 70% of the water used to be cleaned and recycled for reuse, a less expensive alternative than membrane and distillation techniques that require more energy but the highest quality water treatment, the team’s research found.

With growing concerns about water usage, especially in drought-prone Texas—home of the Eagle Ford Shale—the process could prove beneficial. Lowering the costs of recycling water would give operators more incentive to use this method instead of injecting the water into disposal wells. As an added incentive, the team recommended the government offer tax credits for those opting to recycle water and increase water disposal costs to lure operators toward the new technology.

Their work landed the team a first-place finish, plus $10,000 in scholarships. As part of the competition, participants were asked to research, evaluate and develop a creative and economic use for water produced from hydraulic fracturing. According to the rules, the proposal was required to be a realistic and innovative non-commercialized method or technology and be focused on a specific shale play.

“As water intensive drilling techniques spread across the state, the water used by the oil and gas industry increases accordingly,” Power Across Texas said on its website. “Meanwhile, since 2011, Texas has been experiencing drought conditions while simultaneously realizing a rapidly increasing population. The potential for energy self-sufficiency will substantially depend on industry’s success in developing integrated and sustainable water management practices.”

As stated in the news release, team members were Amin Kiaghadi and Rose Sobel, both environmental engineering Ph.D. candidates; Shanisha Smith, a lawyer who recently completed a Master of Law degree; and Varun Sreenivas, an MBA student specializing in energy finance and the energy supply chain. Faculty advisors included Hanadi Rifai, professor of civil and environmental engineering; Zachary Bray, assistant professor of law; Radha Radhakrishnan, clinical assistant professor in decision and information sciences, and Konstantinos Kostarelos, associate professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering.

Executives from Houston-based Rockwater Energy Solutions served as industry mentors.

The UH team should be commended for its innovative idea. Maybe its plans will become reality and be put to use by companies not only in Texas but also by those operating in shale plays in water-scarce areas worldwide.

Other schools with teams competing included Texas A&M University, the University of Texas at Austin, UT-El Paso and Texas Tech University.

Contact the author, Velda Addison, at