UH Team Takes the Texas Energy Innovation Challenge

Graduate Students Pitch a New Idea for Dealing with “Frack Water”

A team of graduate students from the University of Houston will take the Texas Energy Innovation Challenge, offering a solution to a problem gaining attention in shale plays across the country.

Producing oil or natural gas from shale formations takes enormous amounts of water – a watchdog group used industry records from the website FracFocus to calculate that the U.S. used at least 65.9 billion gallons of water during hydraulic fracturing between January 2011 and August 2012, with Texas accounting for almost half of that.

Hydraulic fracturing uses sand, water and chemicals, pumped at high pressure into a perforated well, to fracture the dense rock formations and release oil and natural gas. Energy companies often dump the wastewater, which returns to the surface along with the oil or gas, into disposal wells, although some recycle or reuse the water.

Concern about using so much water, especially in parched regions such as Texas’ Permian Basin, has spurred the search for new ideas. Studies linking wastewater disposal to small earthquakes add to the urgency.

The competition is set for Friday, May 1, at the Capitol in Austin. The other teams are from Texas A&M University, the University of Texas at Austin, UT-El Paso and Texas Tech University.

Each team is made up of graduate students from engineering, business and law, charged with developing a practical and cost-effective way to deal with water produced from hydraulic fracturing.

UH team members – selected after an internal competition – say the interdisciplinary aspect has been eye-opening.

“Engineering is a whole different world,” said Shanisha Smith, a lawyer who just completed a Master of Law degree, with a focus on energy, environment and natural resources.

Other team members include Amin Kiaghadi and Rose Sobel, both Ph.D. candidates in environmental engineering, and Varun Sreenivas, an MBA student specializing in energy finance and the energy supply chain. Faculty advisors include Hanadi Rifai, professor of civil and environmental engineering; Zachary Bray, assistant professor of law; Radha Radhakrishnan, clinical assistant professor in decision and information sciences, and Konstantinos Kostarelos, associate professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering.

Executives from Houston-based Rockwater Energy Solutions served as industry mentors.

Team members won’t publicly reveal their proposal until the competition, but their presentation will draw upon everyone’s skills.

 Kiaghadi and Sobel handled the technical aspects, while Sreenivas looked at the customer base, cost analysis and other economic details. Smith studied the legal and regulatory requirements, including determining if regulatory changes would be needed.

 “I learned a lot,” Kiaghadi said of the teamwork. “It gave us an opportunity to work across disciplines on a real problem,” as well as possibly providing a solution.

 Sobel, who hopes to work in academia, said any water research necessarily includes energy, as well. “When you work with water issues in Texas, you can’t ignore energy,” she said.

 Sreenivas agreed, especially for people who live in Houston, and study at UH.

 “We are energy oriented,” he said. “We are the energy university. This is an edge that we have.”