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Duke alums create DNA tracer prototype

A startup led by recent Duke alums is developing technology to help build trust between fracking companies and the communities they affect. 

The company, BaseTrace, is designing a DNA tracer that could be added to fracking fluids to end speculation about the fluid’s effect on water supply. They have been working closely with the Triangle Research Institute and have received support and funding from the Nicholas School of the Environment, Cherokee Challenge and the Duke Start-up Challenge.

Hydraulic fracturing, known as fracking, is a process that involves drilling into layers of rock in order to pump high pressure fluids underground to release natural gas and oil. Once this fuel is brought to the surface it can be collected and sold for energy use. Although North Carolina legislature approved fracking in the state, some residents remain skeptical of the procedure out of fear of the possible environmental damages such as contaminated drinking water.

“Hydraulic fracturing is, predictably, a large issue at the Nicholas School of the Environment,” BaseTrace CEO and founder Justine Chow, Master of Environmental Management ’12, said. “Regardless of what side communities stood on the fracking debate, there was a definite need for a tracer that could provide accountability on where contamination was coming from.” 

After the tracer is added to the fracking fluid, the mixture would then be pumped into the ground  through the normal fracking procedure, Chow said. Because the tracers would be unique to each well, the DNA will create a fingerprint for each batch of fluid which will help determine whether fracking fluids have seeped into groundwater.

“It’s an extremely sensitive detection test,” she said. “If there’s any potential leakages, casing failure, or other issues that could cause hydraulic fracturing fluid to get into aquifers or surface water, a sample of that water could tell us exactly which well that contamination comes from.”

In addition to its sensitivity, DNA is also an environmentally-friendly material so it can be safely introduced into the ecosystem, Chow noted.

 So far the company’s efforts have primarily been focused on prototype tests to perfect its product but the team is in talks with interested production firms, Chow added. BaseTrace plans to be commercialized by the end of 2013.

Although this technology may remedy reservations towards fracking of some North Carolina residents, others remain opposed.

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill sophomore Jasmine Ruddy,  a member of the environmental affairs committee of UNC student government, said she is against fracking but that BaseTrace’s new technology sounds promising. Ruddy is a resident of Morehead City, one of the areas that would be directly influenced by fracking in the state,

 “While this [technology] will make a lot of people feel safer, I think the bigger issue is that we shouldn’t have fracking in North Carolina in the first place,” Ruddy said. “My concern is that there is not really an ‘if’ question there. There is enough data to support that it will get into the water supply. The question is when and where.”

Adrian Down, a third-year Ph. D. candidate in ecology who has done research about hydraulic fracturing noted that BaseTrace will have to overcome a number of engineering and logistical hurdles in order to be successful.

The uncertainty of how a DNA tracer will react to compounds deep in the earth and the tracers ability to withstand the high pressure, temperature and saline environment of the gas wells could pose engineering difficulties, Down said. He added that an even larger obstacle is the politics of fracking. 

“A bigger challenge is convincing drilling companies to use a tracer like this voluntarily or convincing lawmakers to require that such a tracer be used,” he said. “Unless there’s an economic or legal reason to use a technology like this, I doubt drilling companies will do so voluntarily.”

Despite doubts, Jake Rudolph, chief technology officer at BaseTrace, said the company will benefit all parties by providing more information for resource creation and environmental stewardship.

“BaseTrace will change how industry and local communities interact for the better,” Rudolph said. “We’re a hybrid technology, employing life sciences in the energy sector, and that gives us a lot of opportunity to build meaningful partnerships with different folks.”


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