Marcellus Shale Fracking Releases Uranium: University of Buffalo

Release Date: October 25, 2010

BUFFALO, N.Y. — Scientific and political disputes over drilling Marcellus shale for natural gas have focused primarily on the environmental effects of pumping millions of gallons of water and chemicals deep underground to blast through rocks to release the natural gas.

But University at Buffalo researchers have now found that that process — called hydraulic fracturing or “fracking”– also causes uranium that is naturally trapped inside Marcellus shale to be released, raising additional environmental concerns.
The research will be presented at the annual meeting of the Geological Society of America in Denver on Nov. 2. Marcellus shale is a massive rock formation that stretches from New York through Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia, and which is often described as the nation’s largest source of natural gas.

“Marcellus shale naturally traps metals such as uranium and at levels higher than usually found naturally, but lower than manmade contamination levels,” says Tracy Bank, PhD, assistant professor of geology in UB’s College of Arts and Sciences and lead researcher. “My question was, if they start drilling and pumping millions of gallons of water into these underground rocks, will that force the uranium into the soluble phase and mobilize it? Will uranium then show up in groundwater?”

To find out, Bank and her colleagues at UB scanned the surfaces of Marcellus shale samples from Western New York and Pennsylvania. Using sensitive chemical instruments, they created a chemical map of the surfaces to determine the precise location in the shale of the hydrocarbons, the organic compounds containing natural gas.

“We found that the uranium and the hydrocarbons are in the same physical space,” says Bank. “We found that they are not just physically — but also chemically — bound.

“That led me to believe that uranium in solution could be more of an issue because the process of drilling to extract the hydrocarbons could start mobilizing the metals as well, forcing them into the soluble phase and causing them to move around.”

When Bank and her colleagues reacted samples in the lab with surrogate drilling fluids, they found that the uranium was indeed, being solubilized.

In addition, she says, when the millions of gallons of water used in hydraulic fracturing come back to the surface, it could contain uranium contaminants, potentially polluting streams and other ecosystems and generating hazardous waste.

The research required the use of very sophisticated methods of analysis, including one called Time-of-Flight Secondary Ion Mass Spectrometry, or ToF-SIMS, in the laboratory of Joseph A. Gardella Jr., Larkin Professor of Chemistry at UB.

The UB research is the first to map samples using this technique, which identified the precise location of the uranium.

“Even though at these levels, uranium is not a radioactive risk, it is still a toxic, deadly metal,” Bank concludes. “We need a fundamental understanding of how uranium exists in shale. The more we understand about how it exists, the more we can better predict how it will react to ‘fracking.'”

Bank conducted the experiments with UB Department of Geology graduate students Thomas Malizia and Lauren Fortson, and Lisa Andresky, an undergraduate student from Slippery Rock University in Pennsylvania. Andresky worked in Bank’s lab during the summer while on a National Science Foundation-funded Research Experience for Undergraduates in UB’s Ecosystem Restoration through Interdisciplinary Exchange (ERIE) program.

The University at Buffalo is a premier research-intensive public university, a flagship institution in the State University of New York system and its largest and most comprehensive campus. UB’s more than 28,000 students pursue their academic interests through more than 300 undergraduate, graduate and professional degree programs. Founded in 1846, the University at Buffalo is a member of the Association of American Universities.

9 thoughts on “Marcellus Shale Fracking Releases Uranium: University of Buffalo”

  1. I BELIEVE IT IS TIME TO BRING IN THE NUCLEAR REGULATORY AGENCY, EPA,OSHA, AND THE Attorney General. No, not the AG who won’t investigate the drillers. When no studies have been done before drilling, fast track permits, enforcement outlawed,extremely low bonding, information denied to first responders and Doctors treating injured patients, no impact fees to correct the damages,no one checking on illegal workers,rivers and water supplies polluted, etc, etc, etc. We will have No One to blame but ourselves for not putting up a good enough fight.

  2. Amidst the Understandable Anger and Fear Let us Leave Room for Curiosity and Wonder at Nature.

    Who knows? It might serve all sides well!

    I am no an admirer of high production hydraulic fracturing but at the EPA hearings in Canonsburg last (July?) I publically (Sic. Yes Word’s checker accepts the spelling ‘publically’.)vocalized an interest and even curiosity at what might come back to the surface upon hydraulically fracturing the Marcellus Shale. (I also attempted in those few seconds at the public microphone to express my thought that doing science and engineering involved emotions such as curiosity, intellectual excitement and esthetic appreciation: These scientifically useful emotions may even liberate one’s imagination to do useful work.)

    How might what comes back differ from what goes down?

    What comes back apparently does contains matter altered from the original fracturing water and chemicals beyond the inclusion of natural gas. I’m sorry that it includes heavy metals such as uranium that are toxic or at least unwanted. That is very important to document. But neither is it very surprising. That’s why it is so important to engage in wide ranging testing of return materials even if it is very expensive at first. We need to find out.

    What I do hope if and when this mess every gets resolved, is that we will have enough curiosity and energy left over to investigate the overall process to learn what is (really) going on. Conceivably we may find new processes and effects which will be both interesting and useful. The information may tell us about natural history of the Earth, and help us uncover chemical and physical processes that could help our long term survival as well as our long term investment in science.

    In fact why wait to explore? Conceivably a little pioneering spirit coupled with curiosity could actually HELP us resolve this mess.

    Remember that curiosity ‘served’ the personnel of Star Trek well. What happened to that early 20th century sense of wonder and excitement at science which was so well depicted in the various versions of Star Trek? We AND the corporations BOTH need that badly.

  3. Of course the people at UB (See above.) have already started this. Let them and others who would join continue.

    1. The drillers bought off Penn State, which has one of the largest geology departments in the area. I guess they forgot to buy off University of Buffalo. So much for “curiosity.”

      Do think the effects of fracking will be resolved over the half life of uranium??

  4. I smelled something fishy in the goings on at Penn State. Randy Shannon just confirmed my thoughts. We need to get many more people who are willing to study the components of fracking water when returned to the earth’s surface. Having lived in Buffalo, I know that UB is a school everyone admires.

    1. The corruption of Penn State geology department, their whole physical sciences, by a few $million from the drillers should be made an issue by the people of our state. This is humiliating to us as taxpayers who fund the institution. It should be “curious” about everything, but especially large scale events that transform the quality of life and the environment in the state. Write and call your state legislator and ask them to inquire about Penn State’s whitewashing of Marcellus Shale drilling when the university’s budget is up for renewal in the legislature.

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