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Setting Water on Fire: A Case Study in Hydrofracking


Margaret M. Larrousse
Department of Natural Science
Mount St. Mary College


This case study is used to teach undergraduate students about hydraulic fracturing (hydrofracking), a controversial method for extracting methane from shale. The controversy arises from claims that chemicals used in the fracking process and the methane itself find their way into drinking water and are also sometimes found at dangerous levels in the air. The case study begins in a college chemistry class where a student inquires about a news item he saw about residents setting their tap water on fire. The instructor uses this as an opportunity for the students to research hydrofracking and natural gas, and then integrate these topics into their present study of isotopes. The class first examines what isotopes are by using a guided inquiry based activity. The students then learn how mass spectrometry, which uses the principles just learned about isotopes, is employed to determine the source of methane in contaminated wells. This case study is designed for freshman chemistry students and students in environmental studies.

  • Describe the process of hydraulic fracturing.
  • List advantages and disadvantages of using hydrofracking to increase our levels of natural gas as an energy resource.
  • Identify the differences and similarities between isotopes of the same element and derive a definition for "isotopes."
  • Describe the basic principles of mass spectrometry.
  • Explain how mass spectrometry is used to distinguish between biogenic and thermogenic methane.
Keywords: Hydrofracking; hydraulic fracturing; fracking; isotope; natural gas; methane; mass spectrometry
Topical Area: Science and the media
Educational Level: High school, Undergraduate lower division
Formats: PDF
Type/Method: Discussion, Interrupted
Language: English
Subject Headings: Chemistry (General)   Environmental Science  
Date Posted: 10/30/2014
Date Modified: N/A
Copyright: Copyright held by the National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science, University at Buffalo, State University of New York. Please see our usage guidelines, which outline our policy concerning permissible reproduction of this work.

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Some good new info for me and students about hydrofracking (thermogenic is indicative of industrial methane, I didn't know that). But it jumps from isotopes to a compound with a molecular weight and it doesn't explain the unit of the spectrometer, esp (m/z). I haven't checked teaching notes yet; it may be in there. Thanks, as always for the interesting approach to topics. S King Chemistry, A.P. Env Sci Sci Dept Chair Newburyport, Ma

Sheila King
Science Department
Newburyport High School
Newburyport, MA
This is an excellent case study. Thank you for doing the excellent background and innovative teaching work!

John Korstad
Oral Roberts Univ.
Tulsa, OK

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