A new research carried out by scientists from Penn State University proposes using synthetics derived from waste as proppants during fracking operations.
Most hydraulic fracturing (fracking) operations are conducted using ‘slick water’ – a mixture of water, a small amount of chemicals, and sand. The liquid is pumped into a sealed segment of a horizontal well-bore at very high pressure in order to create cracks in the shale and release trapped gas and oil. The sand in the mixture acts as a ‘proppant’ literally propping the cracks open to let the gas flow up the well.
The use of sand for this purpose has many advantages. For one, its very cheap. The downsides, however, are considerable. Frequent handling of silica sand can release dusts containing silica into the air. This dust when breathed in can cause a condition called ‘silicosis’ – a potentially fatal condition of the lungs. For someone suffering from silicosis, breathing has been compared to trying to suck air through a straw while underwater.
The situation is much more serious than previously thought. According to one study, even very small quantities of silica dust per day – compared to “enough, roughly, to cover Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s nose on a dime” can cause very serious health problems in workers.
In this light, using synthetic proppants made of mixed glass and other waste heavy industry materials, sounds like a brilliant idea. Penn State researchers Scheetz and Hellmann have managed to substitute materials once bound for the landfill for the sand.
The pair discovered that synthetics are not only viable, but could be more effective than sand in fracking. “Synthetics are stronger and spherical, which allows for better flow between bonds,” Hellmann said. They also last longer and produce more natural gas than conventional sand.
In deep drilling operations, Hellmann said companies using the new proppant could expect to produce upwards of 50 percent more natural gas than they could with silica sand. With more than 30 million tons of proppant used annually for fracking, the researchers believe there is a place for synthetics in the market.
So what’s the problem? Well, one is cost. Sand is cheap, recycled synthetic proppants aren’t. Another is lack of capacity in manufacturing. If the shale gas industry of Pennsylvania was to switch over to synthetic proppants the demand would be huge.
“We get several calls a week regarding synthetic proppants, calls for information from companies big and small, recyclers and manufacturers. However, it boils down to costs as well as capacity, and we need to be producing hundreds of tons per hour in order to get costs down,” Hellmann said. Manufacturers would require some 3,000 tons of synthetic proppant for field testing.
It seems that synthetic proppants are not likely to be implemented just yet. The drive to improve and progress in inventing more benign solutions for oil and gas exploration is encouraging, though. Only last week came the news that researchers in Kyoto University, Japan, have carried out experiments in replacing slick water with carbon dioxide in fracking operations.
These are signs that the industry moves towards a more responsible and environmentally conscious attitude and it’s a very welcome development.
(More about silicosis from United States Department of Labor)
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