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Raleigh startup offers solution to clean-up fracking's toxic mess

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Tethis's super-absorbent biodegradable foam Tethex binds with dissolved salts, mineral and other materials, allowing them to be physically removed from waste water. Tethis's super-absorbent biodegradable foam Tethex binds with dissolved salts, mineral and other materials, allowing them to be physically removed from waste water.
A worker helps monitor water pumping pressure and temperature, at an Encana Oil & Gas (USA) Inc. hydraulic fracturing and extraction site, outside Rifle, in western Colorado. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley) A worker helps monitor water pumping pressure and temperature, at an Encana Oil & Gas (USA) Inc. hydraulic fracturing and extraction site, outside Rifle, in western Colorado. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley)
The sun sets behind an oil pump jack and the Rocky Mountains near Fredrick, Colo. (AP Photo/Ed Andrieski) The sun sets behind an oil pump jack and the Rocky Mountains near Fredrick, Colo. (AP Photo/Ed Andrieski)
RALEIGH, N.C. -

It's a passionate debate in North Carolina, but fracking is moving forward in the Old North State. The next step is deciding how to drill for natural gas without adversely impacting the environment.

The process of fracking involves pumping millions of gallons of chemically treated water about two miles into the ground at an extremely high pressure. That pressure then causes fracturing of the shale formation, which pushes natural gas up to the surface.

The process, though, also pushes millions of gallons of now toxic water to the surface.

"It's actually a toxic waste problem that we just deal with," said Scott Bolin, CEO of Tethis. "When you are doing mining or any kind of industrial processing, you end up generating millions and millions of gallons of water that is very salty."

Bolin says Tethis has created a biodegradable foam that could transform that toxic problem.

The sponge was created by two professors in the forestry department at N.C. State who were trying to figure out what to do with waste that comes out of the pulp and paper industry. So they mixed it with seashells and created the material that now makes up Tethex sponge.

Tethex binds with dissolved salts, mineral and other materials, allowing them to be physically removed from waste water.

Scott says the material is the key to soaking up dangerous metals, nuclear material and salt, which is produced during the highly controversial practice of fracking.

In the past, the water was dumped into what are called re-injection wells; which means, in the last 30 years, 70 trillion gallons of the water has been dumped back into the ground. Tethis says, with its fracking sponge, that water can be re-used.

But to absorb that much water, Tethis needs a really big sponge.

"We need to be able to generate thousands of tons a year of this sponge," Tethis co-founder Ryan Chan said.

Tethis only officially became a business about six months ago when it began as a graduate program at N.C. State. Recently the company scored an $800,000 investor, and the budding business is now banking on its sponge to bring success and a cleaner Earth.

Bolin is optimistic that Tethis will have a million-dollar client by the end of the year.

Melanie Sanders

Melanie anchors the 6 PM news. Her "What's Next" series features an engaging approach to storytelling and highlights the leaders in innovation who are shaping our future. Check it out HERE! More>>

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