As the oil and gas industry continues to increase its use of hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," methods, there are plenty of companies out there doing their best to create new solutions to increase the efficiency of the overall process. These new developments are designed to keep fracking as the economic boom technology it has become in many areas around the country.
Even as natural gas prices continue to fall, the market price is putting increased pressure on fracking sites and companies to be as profitable as possible. There are several ways to keep margins high on individual wells, the most important being the presence of other harvestable commodities such as butane and ethane gases. Beyond expanding the variety of yield from any given site, the next logical step is to increase the overall volume yield from each well. This goal has led to new developments in proppants.
The importance of proppants
Hydraulic fracturing has been in development since the 1940s. In that time there have been several approaches taken to increase the value created through the drilling method. In general, fracking is a process of drilling a hole in the surface then injecting a highly pressurized mixture of water, chemicals and proppants deep into the ground to break up rock formations. The fractures created in the rock as a result allow natural resources trapped within the formation to escape.
Proppants are included in the injection mixture to maintain the openings created by the fracturing. For much of the time during which fracking has been practiced, the preferred proppant has generally been sand. However, there are limitations to sand as a proppant. On a microscopic level sand particles are far from uniform, resulting in increased friction compared to more uniform particles, and sand is also less resilient to the extreme pressures found within fracking wells.
As a result, companies such as Oxane out of Houston have begun developing more efficient proppants for use in fracking wells. Oxane has patented a new line of proppants it calls Advanced Ceramic Proppants™, which are essentially minute ceramic balls.
Oxane's products are much more uniform in shape than sand particles, nearly to the point of being spherical. According to Oxane, this shape allows its proppant to be effective in extremely deep fracking wells because it reduces friction during injection and makes each individual proppant more resilient to intense closure stress pressure. By using better proppants, individual fractures can allow more resources to escape, potentially increasing the efficiency of a well dramatically.
As new proppant technologies develop, industry players will no doubt conduct their own real-world testing to prove or disprove the effectiveness of synthetic proppants. Until then, sand mines are sure to continue their current boom to keep up with the demand from the thousands of fracking wells popping up around the country.