Inside a big industrial building in Pittsburgh, Mike Broeker shows off what he hopes is the next big thing in cleaning up the fracking business.
“We have three 8-foot diameter satellite dishes, these are the most common satellite dishes in the world,” says Broeker.
Broeker is COO of Epiphany Solar Water Systems, and no, he’s not selling telecom equipment. His company uses these satellite dishes to clean up the briny waste water that comes out of hydraulically fractured oil and gas wells. This waste stream is toxic and it’s hard to clean—at least cheaply.
Epiphany’s satellite dishes are coated with highly reflective material, making them intense solar heat collectors. They use that heat to evaporate clean water out of tanks of the salty waste, which collects at well pads.
Broeker says it’s actually the same technology bootleggers use to make moonshine.
“It is the same concept; it is distillation,” Broeker says. Instead of making whiskey, Epiphany makes pure water.
A few years ago, the company started to treat drinking water in remote parts of the developing world. But when the fracking boom came, the company sensed an opportunity to jump into the fracking waste water business. A lot of other companies did, too. But it’s been a difficult technology to master—and few have succeeded.
“It’s such low quality water that the technology crashed and burned when they try to treat it,” says Brent Giles, an analyst with Lux Research. The high salt content of fracking waste water—it’s up to 10 times saltier than the ocean—has tripped up many companies. That much salt destroys equipment and clogs up filters.
It’s not hard to see why these companies tried to get into the fracking waste business. Lux estimates that it’s a $1 billion market right now, and could grow to $9 billion by the next decade.
Giles says right now it’s cheaper to recycle that waste or inject it underground. But underground disposal comes with its own issues. The USGS has linked underground injection to earthquakes.
Some in the fracking industry think regulation might make injection wells more expensive in the future. And if that happens, companies that can clean the water up could get a flood of new business.