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2 Indians strike shale gas gold in US

business Updated: May 08, 2013 13:26 IST
Yashwant Raj

Did you know that water, thrown up in the process of extraction of oil and gas from rocks, can be turned fit for human consumption and that too at an affordable cost?

Anurag Bajpayee and Prakash Narayan Govindan, founders of US-based Gradi­ant, are doing it.

Ten years since the 17-year-old from Lucknow, a graduate of the University of Missouri, landed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology or MIT, Bajpayee is a story.

Along with fellow MIT scholar, Prakash Narayan Govindan, Bajpayee founded Gradiant, a start-up that promises to trandform the oil and gas industry. And investors are betting on it.

So what does Gradiant do?

It turns fracking, the environmentally-disruptive process of extracting gas or oil from shale rocks green, if not greener, than any other extraction process.

“It is exciting, ground-breaking and a real benefit to any environment it is applied,” said Peter Hill, oil and gas industry expert.

Shale gas is the latest and cheapest source of energy that has excited the world — the US has reserves of 862 trillion cubic feet (tcf), China has the most with 1,275 tcf and India has 63 tcf.

The Indian government is aggressively seeking US imports of sale gas, while private firms invest in drilling to gain access to the extraction technology or fracking.

Here’s how fracking works.

Large volumes of sand and chemicals carried by water are forced into dense shale rocks, breaking up the rock. Sand keeps fissures open, letting trapped gas escape. Most of this water comes back with the gas, as “flow-back water”. More water or “produced water” is sucked up to the surface from adjoining aquifers. The water is not fit for consumption, and bad for the environment if left standing. Treating it or disposing it off is difficult and expensive.

Gradiant’s carrier gas extrac­tion technology has shown in pilot tests that this water can be turned fit for consumption.

While carrier gas extraction water purification system was invented by Narayan during his studies at MIT, the directional solvent extraction water treatment was Bajpayee’s baby.

Bajpayee discovered the process while working with his professor on freezing human cells. While trying to figure out a way to remove moisture from the cells to be able to freeze them, Bajpayee noticed that it could also remove contaminants from water. And that grew into a system that could desalinate seawater and purify highly contaminated water.

Popular science magazine Scientific American put it in its list of the world’s top 10 ideas of 2012.

Investors are putting their money in it. Deshpande Centre, founded by Indian-American entrepreneur Gururaj Deshpande, which funded the pre-spinout work on this technology, is backing it.

Bajpayee, who is leading the commercialisation effort, and Narayan, the key technical lead, are already looking beyond their immediate target markets, including India. The company is exploring opportunities in the industrial water purification sector in the sub-continent.