hydraulic fracking water analysisHydraulic fracturing (commonly called fracking) has been a hot topic for several years. In many cities, fracking issues were on the latest election ballots (link to a recent article in Newsweek). Many environmental conservationists wanted their concerns about fracking heard by their new elected officials, while campaign candidates were eager to promise they would address the need for environmental regulations.

I certainly understand where these concerns come from and why they cannot be ignored. Regulatory bodies need to quickly respond with decisions and guidance that will minimize the environmental risk currently associated with fracking.

Fracking Risks

Each production well uses up to millions of gallons of water and many chemicals that may present environmental threats. In addition, thousands of gallons of high-salt wastewater flowing back to the surface pose enormous concerns for contamination of ground and surface water, potentially impacting drinking water sources.

Most fracking regulations at the United States state level (link to the ALS global website on state regulation of fracking) focus on drilling and waste handling with little analytical testing required. People appreciate the short-term economic benefits that fracking has brought us all (for example, we currently enjoy the lowest gas price in the past 7 years). However, there is concern about environmental damage (link to an onepetro.org article) such as waste disposal and potential contamination of water sources. The damage could end up costing us far much more than the benefits we gain from gas and oil because:

  • Current wastewater treatment facilities cannot handle the high-salt waste; therefore, a substantial investment in new or reuse treatment processes is needed. Alternatively, deep-well injection can be used to minimize this impact.
  • The fresh water required for fracking activities will reduce the valuable and limited water source available for human and animal consumption.
  • Potential contamination of ground and surface water sources may further reduce the drinking water sources that are already scarce.

Fracking Impact Studies

At the request of United States Congress, the U.S. Environment Protection Agency (EPA) is currently studying the potential impact of hydraulic fracturing (link to the EPA website on hydraulic fracturing) on drinking water to address the effects of hydraulic fracturing wastewater on the wastewater treatment process.

Detailed and documented water analysis will give us more information on the impact of fracking. The wastewater generated from hydraulic fracturing contains a high concentration of salts, together with anions, cations, organic acids, and many other contaminants. It is important to understand the relationship between these contaminants and the formation of regulated disinfection byproducts in drinking water treatment.

If fracking flowback water is sent to a waste treatment facility, or if there is a spill, this may impact the raw water source for a drinking water utility. For example, increased concentrations of bromide in river water that is a water source for drinking water utilities on the Alleghany River have resulted in increased concentrations of brominated trihalomethanes (THMs) (link to article published by the Journal of the American Water Works Association on brominated THMs in Pittsburgh, PA). These THMs are known to be toxic and are regulated by the U.S. EPA. The brominated forms of THMs are more toxic than chlorinated THMs.

Similarly, we must evaluate the effect of high salt on the current biological wastewater treatment process in order to discover how to handle the wastewater from hydraulic fracturing. Highly sensitive and accurate analysis tools enable us to monitor the success of each treatment step in terms of its ability to effectively remove contaminants. More importantly, such analysis of surface and ground water before and after fracking will provide data as evidence on the impact of fracking on water sources.

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Additional Resources

Fracking wastewater samples can be easily and reliably analyzed:

  • This poster note shows another example. Here, U.S. EPA Method 200.7 using inductively coupled plasma optical emission (ICP-OES) and EPA Method 200.8 using ICP-mass spectrometry (ICP-MS) are used to analyze metals and trace elements in fracking wastewater (downloadable poster note PDF). The poster note shows a sample analysis and provides guidance in using our methods and instruments for cost-effective metals analysis.

As the above examples demonstrate, we have technologies, described in this downloadable brochure, titled, Portable, On-line and Laboratory Water Analysis Systems, that target different analytes in hydraulic fracturing wastewater. You might be interesting in reading this recently published white paper, titled, Hydraulic Fracturing Wastewaters (the link allows to download a white paper).

Our ion chromatography and trace elemental analysis methods have been successfully used for fracking wastewater analysis. These analytical tools will enable both the fracking companies and regulatory bodies to align their monitoring activities in order to minimize the risks currently associated with hydraulic fracturing.

If you have questions on the contaminant list or on water analysis, do enter them in the Comments box below. I look forward to hearing from you.



Wei Liu is a Senior Market Development Manager with a focus on trace elemental analysis applications in environmental and industrial markets in the Chromatography and Mass Spectrometry Division at Thermo Fisher Scientific Inc. Formerly a scientist, Wei worked in the field of industrial enzymes and drug discovery. After obtaining his MBA from the Haas School of Business, UC Berkeley, he held a wide range of roles including marketing consultant, product manager, and market research manager. Wei earned a Ph.D. in Molecular Microbiology from the University of Illinois at Chicago and completed postdoctoral training at Stanford University. He has 13 international scientific publications and 4 patents to his credit.