Dr. Angela Hartsock
Seeing the big picture in microbial communities
Angela Hartsock, Ph.D., a research fellow at the National Energy Technology Laboratory is researching ways to use microbes in wastewater from natural gas drilling to help treat the contaminated water.
Environmental microbiologist Dr. Angela Hartsock, a post-doctoral research associate at the National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL) in Pittsburgh, Pa., is searching for ways to treat and reuse wastewater associated with oil and gas drilling.
“This is a hot topic in our state of Pennsylvania where shale drilling is poised to expand across the state... drilling operations will result in millions of gallons of wastewater contaminated with various chemicals,” said Hartsock, who is focusing her efforts on natural gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale.
Drilling in the Marcellus Shale, which has in recent years become one of the nation’s top-producing sites for natural gas, uses hydraulic fracturing which requires large quantities of water. After the shale is fractured to release the gas, this wastewater must be treated and recycled to prevent environmental contamination.
In the water treatment process, drilling companies currently manage microbes using biocides—which are chemical agents that are capable of destroying living organisms—but Hartsock envisions a better and more productive process.
“Instead of killing or combating the microbes, I am interested in trying to understand how we could exploit the microbes in the wastewater to help in the treatment process,” she said. “I am studying the ability of the microbes growing in the wastewater to degrade some of the toxic chemicals that are also present.”
Coming into the program with a microbiology background, Hartsock knew little about the day-to-day workings of the oil and gas industry, including the challenges these industries face in managing environmental issues.
“There is no substitute for actually being on the ground at these sites... Many times my naïve ideas about problems and solutions did not match the true need in the field,” she admits. However, being out of her comfort zone was a growing process for Hartsock who applied to the program because she was interested in working in a government research environment focused on energy issues.
“The sheer scale and complexity of the drilling operations really gave me perspective on how my research could, or could not, be applicable for addressing some of the environmental concerns,” said Hartsock.
While she still has a year remaining in her fellowship, she has already enjoyed collaborating with scientists in other fields and being exposed to the complexities of the energy industry and the nation’s energy policy. She is also looking to the future and hopes to eventually teach and research at an academic institution.
“I have always been either teaching or mentoring students; working with young scientists keeps me young and keeps my mind fresh.”
Hartsock’s program is offered by NETL and managed by the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education. Each year, NETL grants opportunities for post-graduate students to participant in three highly-competitive energy-related internships and research fellowship programs.