A University of Minnesota research team is working on a biotechnology-based process to purify wastewater from hydraulic fracturing (fracking) operations.

The effort recently received a $600,000 grant from the National Science Foundation’s Partnerships for Innovation (NSF-PFI) program, which pairs academic researchers with companies to transfer academic knowledge to the private sector and produce innovative technologies that benefit the public. It is the first NSF-PFI grant awarded in Minnesota, the university said.

Headed by Larry Wackett, a professor in the College of Biological Sciences, the team includes Alptekin Aksan, professor in the College of Science and Engineering, and Michael Sadowsky, professor in the College of Food, Agriculture and Natural Resource Sciences.

The scientists, all members of the university’s BioTechnology Institute, are using naturally occurring bacteria embedded in porous silica materials to biodegrade contaminants in fracking wastewater, a technology they originally developed to remove agricultural pesticides from soil and water. They now have the ability to customize the technology to degrade chemicals in water used for fracking. Their goal is to make the water suitable for re-use in fracking of other wells and significantly reduce the amount of water used by industry.

If the project is successful, the team will be eligible for additional NSF funding.

The team will work with Tundra Companies of White Bear Lake, MN, on silica encapsulation technologies, and Luca Technologies of Boulder, CO, on a related effort: using encapsulated microbes to recover natural gas from depleted coalbeds. Neither company is involved in fracking, the university noted. The university’s role is to further develop a platform technology that could be used by these and other companies.

Evaporation and filtration of fracking wastewater, the current treatment methods, are expensive, the researchers said. Moreover, they don’t eliminate chemicals but rather simply reduce them to a concentrated form. Industrial-scale evaporation and filtration are energy intensive, and both methods leave behind a chemical residue that presents a disposal challenge, the researchers said.

Earlier this year, Wackett and his team also won a University of Minnesota Futures Grant to more broadly explore methods for mitigating the environmental impacts of fracking. For this project the teak is working with a larger interdisciplinary group of co-investigators including faculty in the Humphrey Institute for Public Affairs and the School of Public Health, as well as the intercollegiate BioTechnology Institute.