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Meet Jenna Luek

Jenna Luek
Jenna Luek

Stephen Bilenky

A young chemist studying fracking fluid talks about what it's like when science hits close to home.

Jenna Luek grew up in rural Butler County, Pennsylvania, a place known to horror flick fans as the setting for the original Night of the Living Dead.

By the time Luek (pronounced "Luke") began college in nearby Pittsburgh, something else she found spooky was happening near her home: More and more people were drilling wells to extract natural gas and oil using a controversial technique called fracking.

"I thought it was interesting — and potentially terrifying," remembered Luek, 27, "but I really didn't know much about it."

She does now.

A graduate research assistant at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, Luek is one of the first scientists to come to the National MagLab to study fracking and its environmental impact. Shorthand for hydraulic fracturing, fracking involves pumping vast amounts of water underground at high temperature and pressure. The idea is to create a web of fissures in the shale below — a soft, sedimentary rock formed from mud or clay, often at the site of ancient sea beds — in order to release fossil fuels trapped inside.

Fracking currently accounts for about half of all oil and gas production in the United States, but many people are concerned about contamination and other potential hazards. As a chemist, Luek has been studying what fracking fluid looks like after it comes back out of the ground.

It's a fascinating area of research — even more so when it's happening in your own backyard.

What's in the water?

During a January 2016 visit to the lab's Ion Cyclotron Resonance (ICR) Facility, Luek analyzed the chemical composition of "flowback" water from 20 different sites as part of her Ph.D. research. Her hypothesis: What comes back up is not the same as what went down.

First of all, water used in fracking is more than just H20. Before being sent underground, it is mixed with a cocktail of chemicals that serve to prevent bacterial contamination, protect equipment and produce clean cracks in the shale. In addition, the fracking fluid may pick up compounds from the shale, including salt-producing elements called halogens that include chlorine, bromine and iodine.

The result is a cryptic cauldron of chemicals, and it's Luek's job to sort them all out.

Under the high-temperature, high-pressure conditions of fracking, entirely new compounds, some of them possibly toxic, may be formed.

"We have this soup," Luek said, "and are potentially forming disinfection by-products when disinfectants are a part of this mixture."

Known as DBPs, disinfection by-products are commonly found in water treated with chlorine or other oxidants. Some DBPs are toxic, which is why drinking water treatment plants are required to monitor them — and one reason why Luek is looking for them in fracking flowback. But she's particularly interested in iodine.

"Brominated and chlorinated organics are fairly common in wastewater treatment. But iodinated organics are not. So it has more of a potential to be used as a tracer to say that water contamination is coming from fracking," Luek explained. "So I think that this pool of compounds could potentially act as tracers for environmental contamination."

That's where the MagLab's unique instrumentation comes in.

"Best possible data"

Luek analyzed her samples using a 9.4 tesla ICR spectrometer, an instrument with much higher resolving power than anything at her home lab. She needed that power to parse out the tens of thousands of molecules in her samples.

"They're very precise," she said of her data, which she is currently sorting through, "so we should be able to do a really good job of assigning molecular formulas. And that's important for me if I'm trying to describe new things that we don't know are going to be there."

But it wasn't just the strength of the magnet that was important for Luek's work. It was also the customized instrumentation and the skilled staff scientists who knew how to get the most out of it.

"Because they have such a good understanding of the instrument, it helps you optimize the samples and get the best data possible," said Luek.

Science making a difference

Luek began her PhD in the field of chemical oceanography, tracking the global distribution of the now banned pesticide DDT. But when her advisor passed away suddenly, she paused to reconsider her path.

"I'm just measuring things that are already there," she told herself. "I'm not doing anything about it. I'm not making any changes."

The folks back in Butler County couldn't muster much enthusiasm for the topic, either, remembered Luek; they gave her a hard time for wasting the government's money. So after meeting Michael Gonsior and learning about his fracking research, she launched a new Ph.D. project under his supervision.

"I like being able to talk to people about the science I'm doing and have them get excited about it," said Luek. "That drives me even more."

Now she has the neighbors' approval — and their attention. Many of them lease their land for fracking — with more than 300 active wells according to the website FracFocus, the county has one of the densest concentrations in the state. They appreciate the income, but harbor doubts about safety, said Luek, and have asked her to come up with a cheaper way to monitor their tap water than the prohibitively pricey tests currently available.

Although Luek's parents don't have wells, her research is hitting closer to home than she could have imagined. When she looked up the origins of the wastewater samples she was given for her experiments, she discovered one came from a well just five miles from her parents' house.

"I'm really interested to see what's in that water," said Luek. "I feel like I'll be able to actually have answers for people when I go back home."

By Kristen Coyne

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Last modified on 02 December 2022