Environmentalists list contamination of drinking water first among dangers connected with hydraulic fracturing—fracking—the extraction of natural gas and oil from the ground by digging deep and injecting millions of gallons of fluid into the earth. Fracking fluid, water seeded with sand and a proprietary mix of chemicals, fractures the shale, opening fissures in the rock through which gas can flow to the surface. Each company’s brew of chemicals is a trade secret, thanks to a clause in the 2005 Safe Drinking Water Act that made disclosure optional.
Now a company founded by five current and former students of Duke University is working on a new kind of disclosure. BaseTrace (also the name of the company) consists of “inert strands of resilient DNA” to be mixed into fracking fluid before it is forced down a well. Because BaseTrace DNA would be particular to each well, fracking fluid could indicate what company was responsible for any adverse effects. Companies will be motivated to use it as “an on-site diagnostic tool for quick problem detection,” says Jake Rudulph, a cofounder, and to refute claims of contamination.
The DNA in BaseTrace is reported to be identifiable in low concentrations, so a well’s worth of fracking fluid would require only a thimbleful of BaseTrace. The company is testing BaseTrace’s survival in harsh environments and looking for a partner to help in field tests.