Water research a growing focus at INL, CAES

This March 25, 2014, file photo shows a machine mixing sand and water before it is pumped underground during a hydraulic fracturing operation in Colorado. Researchers at Idaho National Laboratory’s Center for Advanced Energy Studies are working to find ways to lessen the energy industry’s dependence on fresh water, often used for oil and gas extraction and other mining. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley, File)

Water wasn’t always a research focus for the U.S. Department of Energy or the national laboratories.

But that changed when U.S. Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz took office in 2013, said Travis McLing, lead water and energy researcher at Idaho National Laboratory’s Center for Advanced Energy Studies. The reasons were obvious: Nearly half of all U.S. water withdrawals go toward energy production. And vast amounts of energy are used to move water where we need it.

“There’s an obvious hook there for the Department of Energy,” McLing said. “If we’re so dependent on water, this is something that the national labs should be working on.”

On Wednesday, INL’s Center for Advanced Energy Studies, or CAES, hosted a day-long workshop on water and its relationship to energy. It brought experts in the field from across the West to discuss everything from wastewater treatment to water issues related to oil and gas drilling.

McLing said he expects water to be a fast-growing area of expertise at CAES and the lab as a whole in the coming years. CAES will also begin hosting more workshops that are centered on water, he said. The research consortium, based in Idaho Falls, includes INL, Boise State University, Idaho State University, University of Idaho and University of Wyoming.

“In the coming years the federal government, through DOE, will spend significant money trying to solve water issues facing the energy sector,” McLing said.

Research will be focused on two primary areas, he said. The first is finding ways to lessen the energy industry’s dependence on fresh water, often used for oil and gas extraction and other mining. The second focus, McLing said, will be to come up with ways to lessen the amount of energy needed to pull water out of the ground, or move it where we need it.

One recent example of water research conducted by CAES examines whether the salty wastewater brought to the surface by oil and gas drilling operations might be desalinized and repurposed for agriculture and other uses. The wastewater is typically injected back into the earth, a practice known to create its own set of problems.

Another recent example, led by a University of Idaho researcher, is focused on creating a municipal wastewater treatment process that is both highly energy efficient and can make the wastewater safe for drinking.

“There are a lot of technologies like that laying on the shelf,” McLing said, adding that it’s the job of the lab and CAES to further develop them and help them reach commercialization.

When it comes to water — especially in the drought-stricken West — “business as usual is not an acceptable model for the future,” he said.

Luke Ramseth can be reached at 542-6763. Twitter: @lramseth