The practice of fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, works by injecting high pressure water mixtures into wells to form cracks in the shale deep underground. These cracks create new pathways in the rock around the well that aid in the recovery of oil and gas which would otherwise remain inaccessible. A by-product of this process is the release of potentially harmful transition metals, including cadmium, chromium and mercury as ions which may find their way back into the water system.
A recent advance by chemist Joe Gilroy to diminish this type of pollution has earned him this year’s Western Petro-Canada Young Innovator Award 2014-2015 worth $12,500 which will support the research of a graduate student for one year.
The Gilroy Group has found new compounds that can bind tightly to these types of ions. As the transition metals bind to the new chemical there is a drastic colour change from blue to red which makes them very useful self indicators.
As this is a new study, there is much work to be done. It remains to be seen if the active compounds can be incorporated into polymers (long-chain molecules). “At that stage it probably becomes a collaborative project with engineers to see how we might implement these polymers into filter technologies,” says Gilroy. The ultimate and long-term goal, according to the award winner, is to recover potable water.
Gilroy credits his research group for the success they have had so far. “I’m very lucky. I simply suggest an idea and my students take off with it. It’s really exciting to watch this happen. These are creative and inspired people who come up with out-of-the-box notions and solutions. It’s quite gratifying and certainly my favorite part of running a research group.”