Aquatech’s portable, on-site system could revolutionize water treatment at gas wells

By Michael Bradwell, Business editor
Observer-Reporter

CANONSBURG – Aquatech International will field test a portable water treatment system this week at an area natural gas well site that, if all goes as planned, could drastically reduce water consumption and truck traffic while providing recycled distilled water at Marcellus Shale drilling sites across Southwestern Pennsylvania.

If the system succeeds, it would be an example of a local, homegrown company with international expertise in industrial water treatment providing a critical solution in its own backyard.

While officials at Aquatech can’t predict how fast the oil and gas industry will adopt its new MoVap system and move away from trucking millions of gallons of water and wastewater to and from their drilling sites, they believe the new system offers companies a safer, cleaner and sustainable alternative that hasn’t existed in the past.

“This is a first,” said Aquatech Vice President Devesh Mittal, who also acknowledged that the system is a “game-changer” in the way wastewater from hydraulic fracturing will be treated and recycled at well sites.

A world leader in the development of wastewater recycling, reuse and treatment, Aquatech said the new system’s treatment of water at the well site will provide a high-quality wastewater treatment that delivers consistent treated water quality which will allow gas producers the ability to simplify water management at the well pad while promoting use of better quality water for hydraulic fracturing.

Mittal said the technology is a direct descendant of the wastewater treatment systems that Aquatech has provided through more than 1,000 projects in more than 60 countries. Globally, the company treats more than 600,000 barrels of produced water per day with a focus on treated water, desalination, water reuse and zero liquid discharge.

“It was a simple switch for us to take the technology we’ve been doing around the world and reformat it” for companies working in the Marcellus Shale, he said.

The MoVap system has been in development at Aquatech’s Canonsburg headquarters for 18 months. Mittal said the state Department of Environmental Protection was finishing permits for the system last week.

During a tour of the MoVap system at the Aquatech fabrication shop last week, Mittal and others showed a two-segment process. A giant oblong metal tank takes in the spent fracking water, where salts and other suspended solid contaminants such as silts, emulsifiers and heavy metals are allowed to settle to the bottom of the tank, while the filtered water rises to the top and flows through sluices before exiting.

The water is then routed to the MoVap unit that removes total dissolved solids, returning high-quality distilled water, while digitally recording the volumes that are processed.

While the dissolved solids must be trucked from the site, Aquatech said the volume of water required at the drilling site will be drastically reduced, which in turn, will greatly reduce the amount of truck traffic to and from a site.

During a presentation to the Washington County Chamber of Commerce in December, Aquatech Chief Executive Officer Venkee Sharma said the portable, on-site system would reduce wastewater by 80 percent and reduce water-hauling traffic from 200 to 40 truckloads per site, saving wear and tear on local roads.

Aquatech also believes that demand will grow once the initial unit completes its first field operation.

“It took a year to build the first unit,” Mittal said, adding that if the treatment system is adopted by the area drillers in the shale strata, Aquatech envisions building a fleet of the treatment stations.

He said the company believes that as a starting point, it will build a fleet of five sets of the portable treatment stations.

“Now that we have a supply chain established, we can build two a month,” he said.

Mittal showed a system that can be transported by tractor-trailer to any well pad and can be adapted for use at both single and multiple drilling pads.

“It is a huge set-up at the well pad, and logically it is the best place to do the treatment,” he said. And while treatment demand will vary from well pad to well pad, Mittal said the two-segment process can be adjusted to treat any volume of wastewater and operates on a 24-hour basis.

Regardless of where the system is deployed, Mittal said Aquatech will manage the service, providing both on-site and remote monitoring of each system in the field.

“We believe we have the best experience in-house to deliver the service ourselves,” he said. “The business model is for us to be a service-provider; we have to make sure the quality and safety of the service is under our control.”

According to Mittal, Aquatech has also spent the past 18 months talking to oil and gas companies working in the Marcellus. It will showcase the MoVap system when it exhibits at the Marcellus Shale Gas Environmental Summit in Pittsburgh next week.

“Everything’s been very positive,” Mittal said. “The drilling companies want to do the right thing.”

The disposal of wastewater from hydraulic fracturing is one of the most controversial aspects of deriving natural gas from the Marcellus Shale.

Last summer, drillers began showing for the first time that a majority of well wastewater is now being recycled. But a recent report by the Associated Press noted that drilling in the shale strata is growing at such a rapid rate that some of the gains are being erased by operators that still send their waste to plants that discharge into rivers.

While the state has a few plants that specialize in treating wastewater from the oil, coal and gas business, operators are unable to remove the salty dissolved solids and chlorides that the wastewater picks up as it travels through the shale beds, causing concern about the salt levels rising in some Pennsylvania rivers that supply drinking water.

Smaller amounts of wastewater end up in municipal sewage plants that lack the ability to remove contaminants as efficiently as some of the treatment facilities that specialize in oil and gas waste.

Mittal said that with the MoVap system’s ability to remove salts and other contaminants, as well as total dissolved solids, Aquatech is providing “a very efficient process” that produces high-quality distilled water for reuse at the well site.

“Before this, (drillers) didn’t have a solution. Now they have one.”

Mittal declined to discuss the cost of the company’s new system. Sharma said in December that the mobile plants “fit into the cost structure of what drilling companies already spend on wastewater treatment,” while providing a more environmentally sound approach in the process.

And if the new system draws widespread acceptance from drillers, it will be a prime example of a local company providing an answer to one of the biggest challenges to extracting natural gas from the Marcellus Shale.

“We’ve been doing this around the world. Now we’re doing it in our backyard,” Mittal said.

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