Three University of Minnesota researchers have received a $600,000 federal grant to pursue technology that could reduce pollution caused by hydro-fracking, the powerful but controversial technology for producing oil and natural gas.

The National Science Foundation grant will fund development of a system using natural bacteria to break down contaminants in the wastewater associated with the mining practice.

Fracking, a technique that forces water and chemicals into underground rock to release petroleum products, now accounts for roughly one-third of U.S. natural gas production and has revitalized the industry from Pennsylvania to North Dakota. Its rapid growth has triggered an echo boom in western Wisconsin and parts of southern Minnesota, which have large deposits of the specialized sand used in the process.

Leader researcher Larry Wackett said the technology under development at the U is similar to that used to clean contaminated waters after the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The bacteria feed off waste water created by fracking to the point that contaminants are almost nonexistent, he said.

In a laboratory setting, the bacteria cleared nearly all fracking waste within days, Wackett said; existing industry practices can leave a significant amount of waste after a week. He said the challenge is taking the technology out of the lab.

"In the real world, it would be millions of gallons of water. There would be a lot of work to go from the lab to a larger scale,'' Wackett said.

If the technology were brought to scale, it would help address some of the key challenges facing the fracking industry, which currently uses a costly evaporation and filtration system to treat the waste.

The research team, whose members are all part of the U's BioTechnology Institute, would not work alone. The federal Partnerships for Innovation Grant will pair them with businesses that would further develop the technology and bring it to market. The scientists will work with Tundra Companies of White Bear Lake and Luca Technologies of Boulder, Colo. Wackett said that neither company currently works in the fracking industry but that both are interested in taking the technology to the next level.

"This grant is designed for universities to develop a platform, more like a foundation, of technologies," Wackett said. "They then can be used in a number of places in the industry."

Alejandra Matos • 612-673-4028