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Next Great Fracking Advance May Be All Wet

With promotions in recent months and years that include executives drinking some cleaned up fluids used in hydraulic fracturing (fracking), Halliburton Corp.'s top leaders have attempted to demonstrate its and the industry's ability to take lemons and make lemonade. In this case, the "lemonade" is a stale-favored drink that is nontoxic, but not meant to replace normal beverages of choice.

While Halliburton has named its concoction CleanStim (see Shale Daily, Nov. 16, 2010), other parts of the industry are still trying to overcome a myriad of technical and economic hurdles when it comes to making a game-changing breakthrough in cleaning up fracking fluids, a conundrum that has been challenging industry researchers for years now.

Halliburton officials have told news media that the success it is having in producing cleaner fluids and the water used in fracking is reason enough for skeptics and regulators to back off demands for more disclosure and restrictions in using the process driving the U.S. shale boom.

Growing concerns expressed by the public, however, are a catalyst for drawing more industry attention and support for research efforts, researchers at Columbus, OH-based Battelle Labs told NGI recently while outlining their own ongoing efforts to produce a clean fracking fluid and a separate commercial effort to market cleaned-up reusable water for fracking.

This effort to clean up the fracking fluids is an important, but little talked about, research and development push outside of the industry, and it goes to the heart of a recent critical report by a consortium of nonprofit investor responsibility groups, "Extracting the Facts: An Investor Guide to Disclosing Risk from Hydraulic Fracturing Operations." It benchmarked 24 companies doing fracking.

The report from the Investor Environmental Health Network and several related groups criticizes the oil/gas industry for not reporting measurable reductions in their impacts on communities and the environment from fracking. A breakthrough in fracking fluids would be something that could help begin to reverse this tendency to secrecy, as outlined by the report, which was promoting more voluntary transparency by the industry.

Two researchers at Battelle, Olga Koper and Steven Risser, caution that while progress is being made, the work to develop clean fracking fluids is complex, multi-disciplinary and eventually requires industry leadership and investment to test various proposed products in large-scale, real-world oil/gas field settings.

"When Battelle works on a project like this, we begin by modeling the best chemicals and what their various reactions would be, and we combine this with lab work using a multi-disciplinary approach," said Koper, Battelle's market manager in its energy/environment business unit.

Battelle is close, but still not there, to developing something for large-scale testing. Ultimately, it is important to have multiple industry partners willing to do large-scale tests because "every well is different and ever frack job different," said Risser, a research leader at Battelle in Ohio.

"Once you have a first pilot demonstration [in the field], if that goes well, then trying it out on a lot of sites is good." He said it ultimately becomes a matter of determining which well conditions will it work under and which ones will it not.

While Battelle has no clean fracking fluids that have been "tested down hole," as Risser put it, there are things that Koper is doing with various industry partners. "We're working with partners that are interested in using  environmentally friendly materials," Koper said. "Putting something down hole is in our future plans."

"Fracturing has been around for a long time, and there has always been a drive to make things safer," Risser said. Koper thinks there has been a lot more regulatory pressure to do something, along with economic drivers in the industry.

"I believe there will be more use of the environmentally friendly materials," said Koper, adding that to develop the right product requires a multi-disciplinary approach to determine the right mix that will interact the best with the geology in which it will be used.

"It is not just a matter of having materials scientists out there working and hoping something works, you have to have material scientists talking to people in the field who are much closer to the problems."

What is needed and what will ultimately work is a large-scale collaborative process that is interdisciplinary, they said.

"For something to be successful, the industry has to want it, or feel they need it," Risser said. "There is regulatory pressure, but it varies across the globe."

Koper pointed out another aspect of the puzzle: the source of the water used in fracking fluid, which is more than 90% composed of water. With available water supplies in some areas being tight, the use of recycled and so-called produced water becomes more critical.

Battelle has created a joint venture, Winner Water Services, to provide cleaned-up supplies from acid mine water sources; they have an economical process for making these supplies reusable in fracking, and the company is actively marketing its product in several shale plays, including the Marcellus.

A joint venture of Battelle and Winner Global LLC began building its first production unit earlier this year to respond to a potential water shortage facing oil/gas companies doing fracking activities in the Utica and Marcellus shales in Ohio and Pennsylvania (see Shale Daily,March 8).

Another important part of a complex mix is a thickening agent that is added to the water used in fracking fluids. One of those comes from guar, a bean predominantly grown in India, from which a gel is produced for fracking fluid.

Halliburton and others have developed substitutes for guar (see Shale Daily,Sept. 17, 2012), and earlier this year within a day of each other, two Texas lawyers filed trademark applications for "AquaPerm" and "PermStim." They are substitutes for guar.

Emerging from the labs of Baker Hughes Inc. and Halliburton Co., respectively, the two products hit the market in the second quarter, in response to guar costs that had in some cases nearly doubled from the level of the previous three months because of a guar shortage.

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