The answer to some of the environmental concerns about hydraulic fracturing (fracking) in Pennsylvania is a homegrown synthetic proppant that could be used instead of sand, according to Nittany Extraction Technologies, a company founded by two Pennsylvania State University engineering professors.

Using various sources of mineral and waste-glass found in Pennsylvania, professors John Hellmann and Barry Scheetz developed the company's PennProp proppant and, buoyed by more than $167,000 in funding from Ben Franklin Technology Partners of Central and Northern Pennsylvania (BFTP), Nittany expects to be producing it in commercial quantities by the end of the year. PennProp is a high-quality proppant made from low-cost, widely available industrial and domestic waste materials, and is expected to allow millions of tons of minerals to be diverted from landfills, according to BFTP.

Nittany has entered into an exclusive license with Penn State and has already manufactured its first multi-ton test batch in a high-temperature processing facility. Current activities are aimed at producing sufficient quantities to conduct a pilot-scale field demonstration in a fracked gas well in northwestern Pennsylvania.

While much of the ongoing debate about fracking has focused on chemicals used in fracking fluid, Nittany believes a less expensive, high-quality proppant -- traditionally sand but often small particles of ceramics or other material -- could benefit Pennsylvania's Marcellus Shale drillers. No other proppants are manufactured in the state, according to the company.

In 2009 a Rice University researcher told NGI that a proppant he had developed was about half the weight of what is typically used in shale plays (see Daily GPI, Nov. 13, 2009). The proppant was more buoyant, meaning a less viscous fracking fluid -- even water -- could carry it a greater distance into fractured formations, according to Rice's Andrew R. Barron, a professor of materials science.