Molecular Tracers for Fracking Fluid

by Emil Morhardt

Stephanie Kurose, a law student at the American University in Washington DC, calls our attention to both the concept of, and two startups trying to push, micro-tracers which could be injected into fracking fluid so that if it escapes, we know whodunit. The idea is simple, if not yet operational; create some long-lived non-toxic chemical compound with enough potential variation that a different version could be mixed in with the fracking fluid for each individual well. The arguments for it, espoused by Kurose, are equally simple; drilling companies would know if they had a problem with leakage and could change their technology, falsely-accused drilling companies could exonerate themselves, and the public should feel much less angst about fracking if evidence of leaked fracking fluid fails to materialize (or vice versa.) It might be that drilling companies would resist in order to avoid any conclusive evidence that their wells have leaked, but so far no one knows because suitable tracers have yet to be deployed. The two startups giving it a shot are BaseTrace and FracEnsure.

BaseTrace uses genetic engineering technology to produce strands of resilient DNA which can be readily customized into an infinite number of variations which could be mixed with all sorts of industrial fluids, including fracking fluid. Genetic engineering technology makes it equally simple to read the genetic code in these [relatively short by biological standards] strands of DNA.

FracEnsure uses nanoparticles with a paramagnetic coding that is somehow individually coded in batches, but the company’s website does not explain the technology further so we will have to wait.

Kurose, S., 2014. Requiring the Use of Tracers in Hydraulic Fracturing Fluid to Trace Alleged Contamination. Sustainable Development Law & Policy, Summer 2014, page 43.

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