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"Frack Wash" -- The Discovery Files

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Much of the naturally occurring radioactivity in fracking wastewater might be removed by blending it with another wastewater from acid mine drainage, according to a Duke University-led study.

Credit: NSF/Karson Productions

Audio Transcript:

Frack wash.

I'm Bob Karson with the discovery files--new advances in science and engineering from the National Science Foundation.

A new study led by Duke University shows how two environmental issues might be teamed up for a good outcome.

First: Fracking--hydraulic fracturing. Water is injected at high pressure deep underground to crack open shale deposits and extract natural gas. The water that flows back up typically contains high levels of salts, naturally-occurring radioactive materials such as radium, and metals such as barium and strontium. In previous studies the Duke team found that standard treatments only partially remove these contaminants, with some radioactivity still ending up in local streams.

Second environmental issue: Abandoned coal mines, that have the problem of toxic acid mine drainage still seeping into creeks and streams. Many of these aren't far from where fracking is done.

The Duke study modeled the feasibility of combining the fracking and mine drainage problems to reduce the impact of each. They blended fracking wastewater and acid mine drainage, and got some interesting reactions--chemical and physical reactions that formed new radioactive solids that could easily be removed and disposed of in hazardous waste facilities. Not only was the radium reduced by 60 to 100 percent, the metals and even the salinity were reduced making the water safe for re-use at fracking sites.

Next: Real-world tests--some freaky, fracky stuff.

"The discovery files" covers projects funded by the government's National Science Foundation. Federally sponsored research--brought to you, by you! Learn more at or on our podcast.

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