Always Innovating

While many people in Oklahoma are familiar with the 60-year-old practice of hydraulic fracturing, people in states like Pennsylvania and New York are just learning about it. And, what we’ve come to learn at the OERB is that a lack of education leads to fear, maybe even loathing.

In addition to creating programs like the OERB to educate the public, the oil and natural gas industry and those around it do not wait for an issue to resolve itself. Present a problem to the industry, and chances are there is research and development already going on to solve it.

Some of the best examples are already showing up at the university level. Graduate and research students across the U.S. are working on projects to deal with proposed hydraulic fracturing problems. Of late, the most talked about issue in regards to fracturing is water – how it is used, how much is used, where it is put after the “frac” job and more.

Researchers at Texas A&M Corpus Christi are now working on ways to clean produced “frac” water for reuse and recycling. The A&M students have teamed with Hydro Enviro Clean to remove heavy metals from hydraulic fracturing wastewater.

According to reports, students took a half-gallon of untreated fracturing wastewater that was a deep black, almost coffee-like, loaded with chemicals and metals. They added a half-teaspoon of flour-like, organic, biodegradable powder to the water. Just a few hours later, the water was lighter and the powder was capturing the metals. By the end, 90 percent of the metals had dissolved and 20 to 50 percent of the water can be reused. Hydraulic fracturing can cost millions of dollars per well. The A&M-Hydro Clean team says the solution can eliminate one-third of the cost. Larger scale tests are underway.
Up north in Minnesota, bacteria are the key to cleaning hydraulic fracturing wastewater. Using grants from the National Science Foundation and the University of Minnesota, the team is using centimeter-sized silicon beads that have chemical-degrading bacteria trapped inside them. The beads are made by mixing liquid silicon and water with the bacteria inside the beads.

Students say the bacteria are naturally occurring in soil and water, making them safe for treating water. Work is still underway to figure out how long the beads work as well as how to transport and store the beads.

The principal investigator for the project told the Minnesota Daily that this technology could reverse the conversation on the safety of hydraulic fracturing, leading opponents to end their protests.

“As long as we can help make this process safer,” the investigator said, “It’s going to be much more obvious to everybody that there is no harm in responsibly using this abundance of energy.”

Finally, another project looks at the cementing process of drilling and ways to improve it. Most producers will tell you, your well is only as good as the integrity of your cementing job. It is that cement process that protects groundwater and other parts of the formation from contamination.

With that in mind, a team of University of Houston researchers is developing new “smart” cement that students say will make offshore drilling safer.

This cement is more sensitive than standard drilling mud and cementing slurry, which are used on offshore wells to fill gaps and repair cracks. Due to the depth of offshore wells and the ocean water sitting on top of them, managing repairs of these wells is more complex than with onshore wells. Researchers are adding tiny particles of calcium, silica and iron, as well as polymers and coupling agents into the mix of water, cement and sand that make up the cementing slurry.

The lead researcher says these additions will make the electrical properties of the slurry change when they encounter mechanical stresses, temperature changes and chemical reactions – all things with which offshore drillers deal.

The smart slurry would be used in conjunction with electrical leads placed in the outer casing. The leads would be used to measure and monitor how quickly the slurry is hardening, how much has been completed and whether other problems are arising. The research team says this new technology will provide real time results so drillers can react quickly to situations.

“With this new technology, the sensors will show quickly that the slurry level is not rising at proper levels. That way the builder can halt construction and work on a solution,” said the lead researcher.

The technology can continue to monitor the well once it is in production to check for mechanical stresses and strains.

These are just a very small sampling of the research and development projects at the university level working to improve oil and natural gas operations around the country.