The U.S. Department of Energy’s National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL), working with the Gas Technology Institute, Laredo Petroleum Inc. and other industry partners, has collected what may be the world’s most comprehensive hydraulic fracturing research dataset in unconventional shale at a test site in the Permian Basin.

The data, to be made publicly available, provides a first-ever look at how induced underground fractures spread within horizontal wellbores and could be used to help reduce potential environmental impacts, improve efficiency and demonstrate safe and reliable operations for fracturing, federal officials said. Since the fractures are underground, they are never seen and operators have had to rely on various indirect measurements to infer their dimensions, but “insights and understanding gained from this project will change that.”

“Current fracturing operations are inefficient in several aspects,” NETL noted. “By improving the design and execution of hydraulic fracturing, the number of future wells drilled can be reduced along with the amount of water and energy needed in hydraulic fracturing operations. A smaller environmental footprint can result.”

The data were collected from a test site in the Permian in Texas, where 11 10,000-foot-long horizontal wells were drilled and stimulated in the upper and middle Wolfcamp formations. About 600 feet of unique core was obtained “by drilling a one-of-a-kind core well through created hydraulic fractures. The process allowed researchers to obtain phenomenal quality core samples.”

Based on an initial look at the core samples, the research team predicted that the fundamental understanding of fracture propagation, modeling and effectiveness “is about to undergo a game-changing alteration. The data acquired at the site will help producers understand fracture connectivity and conductivity, while identifying drainage patterns across multiple rock formations.”

Laredo, one of the Permian’s top operators, provided the “technology leadership during all operational phases of the research,” the national laboratory noted. Participants in the test site for the project also included Devon Energy Corp., Encana Corp., Energen Corp., Discovery Natural Resources, a U.S. unit of Total SA, Halliburton Co. and Core Laboratories.