In an effort to clean up water used in natural gas extraction in the Marcellus Shale -- and maybe offer a boost to the reputation of the hydraulic fracturing industry -- Consol Energy, the coal and natural gas producer based in Cecil, announced Monday it has invested $500,000 in Epiphany Solar Water Systems, a New Castle start-up company that uses solar power to purify water.
Consol's investment will fund Epiphany's technology in a pilot system meant to purify wastewater left over from natural gas extraction and to separate out the contaminating salt and metals. The contaminants can be recovered and repurposed, with salt, for example, being suitable for use on roads or for water softening.
"That water is so clean that it could be used for IV bags," said Tom Joseph, founder and CEO of Epiphany, at a news conference at the Pittsburgh Technology Council's offices in Oakland announcing the collaboration.
Starting in July, Epiphany will conduct two to three months of testing at a well in Greene County. The companies expect to release results in September.
The technology addresses a financially and environmentally wasteful thorn in the side of the hydraulic fracturing industry, which has faced challenges in disposing of large amounts of contaminated water used for natural gas extraction.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, about one-third of the water pumped into the ground as part of the process of releasing natural gas returns to the surface as flowback and contains metals, naturally occurring radioactive materials and other dangerous contaminants.
As StateImpact Pennsylvania reported last week, Oklahoma City-based Chesapeake Energy will pay $1.6 million in damages to three families in Wyalusing, Pa., after drilling from the Marcellus Shale formation contaminated their water supply.
Drilling a well in the Marcellus Shale using hydraulic fracturing requires 3 million to 5 million gallons of water, compared to 1 million gallons for conventional wells of comparable depth. Current disposal methods include underground injection, discharge to treatment facilities and recycling, according to the EPA.
A number of businesses in Western Pennsylvania are developing processes to treat water at the Marcellus Shale drilling site. The companies believe the Epiphany technology is the first effort to draw on solar power for the purposes of water purification. The two companies expect this new process to reduce the costs of fracking and to curb waste by more than 90 percent. The impact will be huge for Consol, which handles 35 to 36 billion gallons of water per year.
"We're already in the water business," Nick DeIuliis, president of Consol, said jokingly.
The technology uses energy from the sun to heat up a nontoxic thermal fluid, which in turn separates the wastewater from the salt and metals in three outward streams. The distillation process involves bio-filtration units designed by PMC Biotec, a company based in Exton, Pa.
The new process is expected to be less expensive than the current systems being used. "You can be green and save money," Mr. Joseph said.
Meanwhile, the venture blends the old and the new in launching a collaboration between Consol, a large corporation that turns 150 next year, and Epiphany, a small start-up founded in 2009.
While Mr. DeIuliis is eager to draw upon the talent of Epiphany as it expands its reach from coal and natural gas to water, the young company gains from its attachment, as well. Consol is a strategic investor, said Rich Lunak, president and CEO of Innovation Works, in his comments at the announcement. Innovation Works provided the seed funding for Epiphany in 2009.
The partnership "gives us credibility," said Mr. Joseph.
The companies hope not only to reduce their carbon footprint, but to make economic gains for themselves and for the region along the way. Mr. Joseph said Epiphany has hired five people in the past two weeks, doubling its workforce.
Epiphany and Consol hope that this technology will have implications for water consumption in the rest of the world. Epiphany, which operates a nonprofit that provides water purification programs in the developing world, is planning to launch water projects in Dubai and India this fall, according to Mr. Joseph.
His company's low-cost water systems allow people in developing countries to go to work who might otherwise not be able to. "That's a very different way to look at charity," he said.
Mr. DeIuliis said three billion people lack electricity and clean water, and solar-powered water systems could provide those resources worldwide. "Getting them access to electricity is a moral imperative," he said.
But while he believes the technology "has implications well beyond our region and well beyond our borders," he is eager to start locally.
"Let's get this technology demonstrated first in Western Pennsylvania," he said.
Elizabeth Bloom: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1969