Researchers at Northwestern University believe that improving the operational efficiency of natural gas fracking could produce a "win-win" for both the U.S. energy sector and the environment.

Engineering professor Fengqi You and doctoral student Jiyao Gao developed models to analyze the shale gas supply chain. Their findings, published in the journal ACS Sustainable Chemistry & Engineering, indicated that several changes could help curb the environmental impacts of fracking.

The model showed that companies should plan for long-term drilling at fracking sites rather than building dozens of horizontal wells to extract shale gas.

The altered schedule would reduce the industry's consumption of water — which is pumped underground with sand and chemicals to crack underground shale rock — and avoid the use of long-term storage facilities and other capital expenses.

In addition, the study recommended that fracking companies treat their wastewater rather than inject it underground. The Northwestern model showed that recycling water back into fracking operations would be more sustainable over the long term and curb the need for additional transportation costs.

The analysis also recommended that energy companies develop pipelines — rather than use trucks — to both transport water to the fracking site and ship natural gas elsewhere.

"Shale gas is promising. No matter if you like it or not, it’s already out there," You said. "The question we want to answer is: How can we help this industry to make it more sustainable?"