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Bacteriophages could revolutionize fracking wastewater treatment

The fracking industry in the Permian Basin generates an overwhelming 168 billion gallons of wastewater annually. This “produced water” is notoriously difficult and expensive to treat due to its chemical complexity.

Sadly, traditional methods often fall short, leaving the industry grappling with the financial and environmental costs.


Researchers have recently made a significant breakthrough in the quest for a more efficient and cost-effective treatment method.

Their study, which brings to light the potential of bacteriophages — viruses known for their ability to target and eliminate specific bacteria — is paving the way for innovative solutions in water treatment.

Ramón Antonio Sánchez, a doctoral candidate at The University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP), spearheads this research. He explains that bacteriophages are uniquely adept at infecting and destroying single species of bacteria without harming others.

This specificity is particularly useful in tackling the problematic bacteria found in produced water.

Fracking industry and wastewater challenges

Produced water from fracking contains bacteria like Pseudomonas aeruginosa, which corrodes metal infrastructure, and Bacillus megaterium, known for decomposing hydrocarbons.

These bacteria present serious challenges for the durability of fracking pipelines and the cleanliness of the water.

By targeting these bacteria, bacteriophages offer a rapid and targeted approach to water treatment, enhancing the sustainability and efficiency of oil and gas production.

Expanding access and effectiveness

Despite the significant potential of bacteriophages to revolutionize wastewater treatment, several challenges limit their current application. Firstly, these viruses are not widely available, restricting their immediate use in industrial settings.

Moreover, the nature of bacteriophages is such that each type typically targets a specific strain of bacteria. This specificity, while beneficial for targeting harmful bacteria without disrupting beneficial ones, means that a wide variety of bacteriophages must be developed to address the different bacteria found in various environments.

To overcome these limitations, the research team is actively working to increase the diversity of bacteriophages that can be produced and used commercially. By broadening the range of bacteriophages, they aim to create a more flexible and adaptable treatment solution.

This expansion would allow for the treatment of a broader array of bacterial contaminants, significantly enhancing the versatility and effectiveness of bacteriophage technology in cleaning up fracking wastewater and potentially other industrial applications.

Academic research

Sánchez’s successful lab experiments with bacteriophages mark a significant breakthrough. He plans to extend these achievements to industry settings, aiming to replicate his results and expand the range of treatable microorganisms.

UTEP’s growing research reputation attracts talented researchers like Sánchez. His doctoral advisor, Ricardo Bernal, Ph.D., an associate professor at UTEP, commends this pioneering work for its potential to refine industrial practices and enhance environmental sustainability.

Fracking wastewater treatment significance

In summary, the innovative application of bacteriophages for treating fracking wastewater underscores a critical breakthrough in industrial water treatment technology.

This approach not only demonstrates the direct benefits of cleaner, more sustainable wastewater management in the oil and gas industry but also serves as a powerful example of how scientific research can address real-world challenges.

By harnessing the natural targeting capabilities of bacteriophages to selectively eliminate harmful bacteria, this method offers a potentially transformative solution to one of the significant environmental issues posed by fracking operations.

Moreover, the success of this research could inspire similar strategies across other sectors that face wastewater management challenges, such as agriculture, manufacturing, and municipal water treatment.

The broader implications of this study suggest that integrating biological technologies into industrial processes could pave the way for more environmentally friendly practices globally.

Thus, the application of bacteriophages in water treatment not only addresses specific industrial needs but also contributes to the larger dialogue on sustainable development and environmental stewardship.

As this technology develops, it may offer a blueprint for other industries seeking sustainable solutions to environmental challenges.

The full study was published in the journal Water.


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