Ned Godshall hands me a glass of water. I pause to consider the origin of this drink: a holding tank of foul, dark, brackish slop from a natural gas well.
“Go ahead, try it,” Godshall prods with a sly smile.
The water in the glass is clear and odorless. It is distilled water, six times purer than tap water. Technically speaking, it has no taste at all. Poetically, it tastes like hope.
Godshall is co-founder and CEO of Albuquerque start-up Altela, Inc. Altela builds portable, onsite water purification plants to treat brackish water brought to the surface during oil and gas extraction.
Godshall estimates about 90 percent of what comes out of oil wells is undrinkable “produced water.” It must either be hauled away—generating truck traffic and carbon emissions—and re-injected deep into the earth using expensive drilling apparatus, or spread out to slowly evaporate in pits. The problems associated with produced water make it a regular flashpoint for activists fighting oil and gas drilling in places like Otero Mesa and the Galisteo Basin.
Godshall says Altela’s patented system can turn every oil and gas well into a water well. Instead of a liability, produced water can be a new source of potable water for a thirsty West. Only three years old, Altela’s system is already delivering water from oil and gas fields in New Mexico and is shipping its first systems to Colorado and Alberta.
Regardless of how “highly challenged” the water being treated, the final product in Altela’s process is pure H2O. Altela’s distilled water is used, free of charge, by ranchers, irrigators and the City of Farmington. It also provides an immediate water source for drilling operations, thus avoiding the need to transport clean water to site and reducing pressures on water sources needed by municipalities, industry and agriculture.
Altela works its magic by making rain from contaminated water. Picture a briny ocean where surface water evaporates with the sun’s heat. Liquid water vaporizes, leaving behind salt, organics and dissolved solids. As the vapor rises it cools, turns back to liquid and falls to earth pure as rain.
Altela replicates nature’s hydrological cycle inside foil-wrapped towers of corrugated plastic boards, sponges and low-tech materials you can buy at Home Depot. At each drill site, excess heat and gas from the drilling operation itself provide the energy to vaporize water. Altela does not treat the water with any chemicals. There are no membranes and filters to clog, and thus no limitations on Altela’s ability to purify even the filthiest water. Finally, Altela tucks its system inside recycled cargo containers shipped here crammed with Chinese goods but abandoned as trash because we’re not sending anything back. Nice touch.
This is great news for an arid region with a growing population and for an oil and gas industry confronted with a costly environmental and public relations problem. But is it cause to wax poetic about a glass of distilled water?
Millions of people, mostly children, die every year in the developing world, not from lack of water but for want of clean water. Rivers are being destroyed across the planet. A recent story in The Smithsonian portrays the Ganges as an open sewer clogged with feces, human and animal corpses, and the bile of unchecked industrialization. India has proven itself incapable of slowing the pollution or building infrastructure to clean the river. Yet the Ganges, more toxic every year, provides drinking water directly to tens of millions of the subcontinent’s people.
Altela’s simple and elegant system may be the answer, for India and for far less developed and less functional societies. For starters, Altela doesn’t need an established, reliable power grid. Its installations can run anywhere the sun shines.
Altela’s system doesn’t require expensive components or highly skilled operating technicians. It need not wait for a competent, stable government to emerge, something essential for large, centralized water purification facilities. Altela can provide clean water wherever needed. In the developing world, Altela’s stand-alone installations can be to water purification what cell phones are to telecommunications.
Back to that glass of clean water Godshall has poured for me. We hear so much about hope. Hope lifts us, drives us forward and keeps us on our feet with the promise of a better world. We need to believe that it is out there, somewhere. But it is so very rare that we get this close to hope, so close we can taste it.
Catch Jim Scarantino's interviews with the candidates for Congress on JOY AM 1550 Tuesdays at 9 a.m. and Saturdays at noon.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the author. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.