The U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Fossil Energy and Carbon Management (FECM) is investing in research and development projects to advance water treatment and management technologies for produced water.  

A significant opportunity exists to make the treatment of produced water more affordable, so that it can be managed in a way that provides environmental and economic benefits to communities. These efforts align with our mission of reducing the environmental impacts of oil and natural gas operations, while also supporting the Biden Administration’s executive order on improving water quality and achieving a clean energy and industrial future. 

What is Produced Water? 

Produced water is a term used in the oil and gas industry to refer to the water that comes out of a well during the oil and gas production process. Like oil and gas, this non-potable water exists naturally underground. Depending on the chemistry of the rocks, it may contain many different chemical constituents, including mineral salts, organic compounds, heavy metals, naturally occurring radioactive materials, and other minerals. 

Because of the presence of these constituents, produced water is often disposed of in deep underground injection wells. This activity increases the fluid pressure within the disposal formation, and in some cases, it can induce low magnitude seismicity, which is a minor earthquake.  

Uses for Produced Water 

Instead of being disposed of underground, produced water, if characterized and treated, can be beneficially reused in many industrial and non-industrial applications, including fire control, power generation, vehicle and equipment washing, and non-edible crop irrigation. It can also reduce the need for freshwater resources, which is especially important in water-scarce regions of the nation.  

As an added benefit, produced water can contain valuable critical minerals and rare earth elements, such as lithium, that are important for the development of clean energy technologies including solar panels, wind turbines, and hydrogen fuel cells. 

FECM Produced Water Investments 

As it stands today, technologies and infrastructure that allow for industry to reuse produced water are costly due to the complexity of treatment. And that’s where FECM comes in—since January 2021, we have invested approximately $27 million for water management research and development activities. Most recently, we issued $18 million in funding which will include awards for projects that will develop and demonstrate technologies to manage produced water safely and effectively for beneficial end-uses. This includes the irrigation of non-edible crops, hydrogen generation, and aquifer recharge and recovery, along with the recovery of critical minerals, including rare earth elements.  

Through these investments and research and development efforts, our overarching goal is to make produced water available, in a safe and affordable manner, so that it can be beneficially reused by communities and industry at large. 

If you’re interested in learning more, sign up for the National Energy Technology Laboratory’s Water-Energy Nexus newsletter which dives deeper into program-level activities. To keep up to date with our produced water investments, sign up for FECM news alerts.