Professor develops technology to alleviate drilling effects

Chemistry professor Daniel Strongin is developing a method to prevent effects of acid mine drainage.

At first glance, the experiment in the laboratory does not look like anything out of the ordinary–nothing more than a series of tubes and bottles. However, when this experiment is brought into the real world, researchers hope it will have far-reaching effects on the state of environmental affairs in Pennsylvania.

Chemistry professor Daniel Strongin and graduate assistant Andro-Marc Pierre-Louis are currently working on a method to reduce the effects of acid mine drainage, an environmental problem that has been plaguing rivers and wildlife throughout the commonwealth.

Acid mine drainage occurs when rain and groundwater interacts with pyrite and oxygen in abandoned mine sites. This interaction creates sulfuric acid, which then dissolves heavy metals including iron and aluminum, within the exposed mine. This tainted and acidic water then runs into nearby streams and waterways, killing fish and other species on the food chain, ultimately throwing a balanced ecosystem off kilter.

More than 3,000 miles of streams have been effected by this runoff, leaving 1,714 miles of those streams without any fish, according to the Pennsylvania Environmental Protection Agency.

Consequently, this costs the state $67 million annually in lost sport fishing. The economic price of cleaning up the entire watershed is much greater, estimated anywhere from $5 billion to $15 billion.

This acidic runoff water is treated by the addition of select chemicals, mainly limestone, into the water that brings it closer to a neutral pH. Reapplication and tests make this a costly process.

“Currently the state neutralizes acidic water, but it’s a losing battle. It requires constant application,” Strongin said.

Strongin’s method, 10 years in the works, involves coating the metal sulfide within a mine with a hydrophobic phospholipids coating. Simply, the coating repels rain water from the metal sulfide, protecting it from the oxidation process that creates sulfuric acid and acid mine drainage.

Strongin is beginning to apply his coating to materials and has field tests planned. The transition laboratory to the often unpredictable natural environment can be difficult, but Strongin said he is hopeful that the coating will continue to work.

One of Strongin’s biggest hurdles in application is his use of pure iron sulfide, which is the primary cause of acid mine drainage, to test his coating in the lab. In reality, iron sulfide is only a small component in the exposed mass. The challenge is to perfect a way to only coat the necessary areas.

If Strongin’s method proves to be successful, it could have far-reaching effects on environmental concerns. First, it could help to prevent future mine drainage from occurring and improve water quality throughout the state.

“All of the waterways are interconnected,” Pierre-Louis said. “So, if we start to fix them at the source of the problem, it will help us all.”

Pierre-Louis said acid mine drainage is something all people should be concerned with.

“The aquatic system is very important,” he added. “Sometimes government only sees the good side of making profits but it is just as important to see the aftermath.”

This idea of the government taking possible negative impacts on the environment into account during business decisions has become a contentious issue in Pennsylvania recently.

Some citizens accuse drilling companies of tainting drinking water, as well as contributing to both air and noise pollution as the companies constantly need to truck in water for use in the hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” process.

During hydraulic fracturing, approximately 5 million gallons of water need to be utilized per well. This amount is so high that most companies have to ship in water from elsewhere, because the demand is too great for the local watersheds to handle.

According to the department of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Pittsburgh, transporting 1 million gallons of water can require 200 truck trips.

Since many abandoned mine sites in Pennsylvania are near natural gas wells, water does not need to be shipped from elsewhere. This would relieve stress on the region’s water supply.

Previously, this mine water could not be used because it was too acidic. If Strongin’s coating works, the water will be of a high enough quality to be used in the fracturing process.

“Acid mine drainage is what we’re keying in on, but now it has relevance to the Marcellus Shale as well,” Strongin said. “We are killing two birds with one stone.”

However, some environmental activists have said they believe hydraulic fracturing of any kind is dangerous and should be stopped, regardless of whether or not drilling companies are using recycled mine water. They claim that hydraulic fracturing destroys the local drinking water supply, as residents who have wells on their property have complained of illness since the drillers arrived.

The drilling industry has refuted these claims, explaining that hydrofracturing occurs 8,000 feet below the earth’s surface, making it impossible for the chemicals injected into the ground during fracturing to ever reach the water table.

Either way, Pierre-Louis said he hopes people keep the environment in mind during their economic pursuits.

“It is important to keep a balance,” Pierre-Louis said. “We took things out of the Earth and now we have to help it in the aftermath.”

Amy Stansbury can be reached at amy.stansbury@temple.edu.

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