Clean tech entrepreneurs look to cash in on fracking boom

Clean tech companies open the spigot to fracking-related sales.
Clean tech companies open the spigot to fracking-related sales.
Image: AP Photo/Brennan Linsley
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A Los Angeles company called OriginOil has developed a technology to help boost production of algae biofuels, one of the great green hopes for displacing fossil fuels and cutting planet-warming carbon emissions. Now OriginOil is repurposing its technology to serve the oil and gas industries as the fracking boom booms.

“The reason we have put a lot of focus on oil and gas is that it’s a big industry—algae is a lot more small scale,” OriginOil chief executive Riggs Eckelberry tells Quartz.

OriginOil isn’t alone when it comes to green tech entrepreneurs looking to green up Big Oil. Canadian startups in particular see money to be made helping tar sands drillers clean up their act, or at least the huge volumes of water used in oil and gas extraction.

“Wastewater is an enormous problem in the oil and gas industry,” Wal van Lierop, chief executive of Chrysalix Energy Venture Capital, said last month at a green tech conference in San Francisco. “There’s a tremendous opportunity for clean tech to use these technologies for further innovation for industries in transformation.”

And it’s not just a bunch of Canadians looking to cash in. California solar thermal power plant developer BrightSource Energy’s first project was not to supply electricity to Prius-driving San Franciscans but to produce solar-generated steam for Chevron to use in oil extraction.

In conventional oil drilling, enormous volumes of contaminated water are extracted along with petroleum—typically three barrels of water for each barrel of oil, according to oil services giant Halliburton. That “produced water” must be either cleaned or trucked away for disposal. Likewise, hydrofracturing (fracking) consumes a huge amount of water that is laced with chemicals and injected at high pressure into subterranean rock formations to dislodge pockets of natural gas and oil.

And so Chrysalix, based in Calgary, Canada, has backed a startup called Axine Water Technologies that has invented a process to remove organic toxins from industrial-produced water and other industrial wastewater.

Another Canadian company, Seair, is trying to capitalize on the fracking boom by offering its wastewater treatment system to drillers.

“Some of the companies have to transport their frack water hundreds of miles by truck at enormous cost,” said Seair chief executive Ric Charron, noting that treating fracking wastewater on site for reuse in drilling wells can significantly cut their transportation costs.

That’s a market OriginOil is targeting. The company originally developed a technology called electrocoagulation to harvest algae from growing ponds by using electromagnetic waves. The company subsequently discovered the process could also remove petroleum from produced water and chemicals from fracking fluid.

“In west Texas, water trucking costs are adding 14 cents a gallon to the cost of a barrel of oil,” says Eckelberry. “You can clean up the water with our process and reuse it for two to three cents a gallon.”

A prototype of OrginOil’s Clean-Frac machine removed 98% of contamination from produced water in field tests and the company is set to launch a commercial version of the technology later this year, according to Eckelberry.

But he’ll face big competition in an industry that has not shown itself particularly open to newcomers. Halliburton, for instance, sells a similar technology called CleanWave.

“Minutes are gold on the well pad so drillers are very, very jealous of their operating time,”  says Eckelberry. “You need to be proven at the well because there’s so much at stake.”