W&J alumnus creates frack water recycling process

March 1, 2015
Ray Roccon, founder of In-situ Treatment Technologies, prepares to start the water recycling process at a local well site. - Photo courtesy of Ray Roccon

Recycling drilling wastewater is a little like turning lemons into lemonade.

At least it seems that way to Ray Roccon, a chemist who created a process to treat flowback water so that it can be reused in fracking operations.

Roccon, a Washington & Jefferson College alumnus, founded In-situ Treatment Technologies last August and applied for a patent for his recycling process. It’s currently a one-man operation that he runs out of his Harmony home office, but he plans to hire employees and expand his business. He has been helping a local drilling company recycle its flowback water at a Greene County well pad.

An article he authored, “From Lemons to Lemonade: Frac Water Disinfection with a Marcellus Twist,” will be published in Shale Play Water Management Magazine later this month.

Roccon distinguishes himself from other companies by using a different biocide, which is a chemical used to prevent the growth of microorganisms in fracking water once it is injected into a well. He said sulfate-reducing bacteria is of particular concern because it can metabolize and form hydrogen sulfide, which is poisonous and has a distinctive rotten egg smell.

Roccon said Pennsylvania drillers learned from the early mistakes of Texas-based companies that contaminated wells with the malodorous substance, which is not easy to eradicate.

“I’m doing this because when you get off the airplane in Pittsburgh, I don’t want it to smell like it smells when you get off the airplane at Midland, (Texas),” he said.

He’s not alone, either. Comtech Industries, of North Strabane Township, and Aquatech, of Canonsburg, are two other local companies that specialize in treating drilling wastewater.

Flowback water is not easy to dispose of in Pennsylvania, where there are few deep injection wells. Transporting the fluids to neighboring West Virginia or Ohio can be costly, so most companies use recycling processes to avoid the disposal dilemma.

Travis Windle, spokesman for the Marcellus Shale Coalition, said their member drilling companies moved to comprehensive water management programs in May 2011 that “rely almost exclusively on recycle and reuse technologies while also utilizing U.S. EPA-regulated disposal wells as needed.”

The “lemons” – the key ingredient in Roccon’s process – are sodium bromide ions. Bromide, which is naturally-occuring in many shale formations, dissolves in water and flows back to the surface. Bromide is potentially dangerous when it ends up at treatment plants that disinfect drinking water, but Roccon said the chemical compound is beneficial when used to treat flowback water.

The bromide is “activated” when it combines with sodium hypochlorite, which is essentially a stronger version of household bleach. The result is hypobromous acid, which is the biocide and “lemonade” in the equation.

Roccon said he objects to the use of certain non-oxidizing biocides that can degrade to formaldehyde and hydrogen sulfide once the water is injected into a well. He also noted that other companies may use ozone, which works in the same way as sodium hypochlorite, but “you’re paying about 15 times more for it.”

And while bromide is expensive to purchase, it comes free in the flowback water.

“This is an alternative to disposal, and you can actually save money doing it because hopefully you’re not going to move (the flowback water) as far to get to your next frack site as you would to disposal,” Roccon said. “And once you get it to a new frack site, it’s going to cost you less to actually disinfect your water.”

The process takes place entirely above-ground, and Roccon travels to well pads with one piece of equipment – a feed system made by a local company that can easily be lifted by two men. Once on site, transfer pumps are used to pull fresh water from a river or stream, or to pump flowback water from work tanks into the piping system. Roccon said the process typically uses about 70 percent fresh water and 30 percent flowback water. On average, Roccon treats about 6.3 million gallons of water per frack, and the treatment process occurs “at 4,200 gallons a minute,” he said.

While some companies add their biocide into the “blender,” the final step of the process in which friction reducers and other additives are added to the water to prepare it for fracking, Roccon adds the biocide in earlier steps. He said this allows more time for the biocide to work as it’s intended.

“I think this is the best way you can possibly do this without impacting the environment,” he said, “because you’re using the same product they use to disinfect drinking water, and it’s exactly the same process.”

For more information on In-situ Treatment Technologies, contact Ray Roccon at 724-368-0088.

Emily Petsko joined the Observer-Reporter as a staff writer in June 2013. She graduated from Point Park University with a dual bachelor's degree in journalism and global cultural studies.

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