Bacteria that have been a persistent problem for hospitals may turn out to be the solution to a persistent problem for the natural gas industry.
Biofilms are communities of bacteria that form on exposed surfaces. In addition to forming in nature, they commonly form on the surfaces of catheter lines and surgical implants, such as pacemakers, making them a leading cause of hospital infections.
Now they could be used to cleanse water used in drilling for natural gas in the Marcellus Shale.
Biofilms have long been a subject of research at Allegheny-Singer Research Institute, the research component of Allegheny General Hospital.
"Our interest up until now has been in human disease," said Chris Post, president of Allegheny-Singer.
Then came the "aha moment."
"I was reading and thinking about the Marcellus Shale," he said, "and realized that biofilms could be very helpful."
When drilling for natural gas in the Marcellus Shale, a geologic formation underlying much of Pennsylvania, gas companies use millions of gallons of water to fracture rock and release the gas. Many environmentalists have opposed such drilling because of concerns about the contamination of the water used.
What Mr. Post realized is that the very elements regarded as contaminants in used frac water - "heavy metals" such as cadmium, barium and strontium - are sources of energy for biofilms. In effect, they feed on the contaminants.
"They have a great affinity for heavy metals," he said. "They trap them and use them as energy sources."
That means that biofilms could be used to clean frac water.
After about a year of lab testing, and with an investment from Downtown private equity firm iNetworks, Mr. Post formed Frac Biologics Inc. The Downtown biotech startup has licensed the biofilm technology from Allegheny-Singer for marketing to natural gas producers.
Frac Biologic's process for cleaning frac water involves pumping the used water through a tank car full of biofilms. The heavy metals would be absorbed, and the remaining frac water could either be released as a vapor or returned to its source.
Mr. Post hopes to complete a field trial of the process in about a year so that by the end of 2011, some natural gas producers could be using biofilms to clean their frac water.
While Frac Biologic has three patents in place, Mr. Post acknowledged that the basic idea of using naturally occurring biofilms to clean frac water is simple enough that others could jump into the field.
"I'm sure we'll have competition," he said. "But that's business, I guess."
Elwin Green: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1969.