Tiny particles enlisted to tackle fracking’s mysteries, “we don’t know the exact extent of the fracture networks”

Tiny particles enlisted to tackle fracking’s mysteries by Peter Behr, March 15, 2013, Energy Wire
Can magnetic nanoparticles injected deep underground with hydraulic fracturing liquids reveal detailed dimensions of shale rock fractures and track movements of gas molecules? Can other particles — that change form when they encounter oil — be “interrogated” for clues about the amounts of oil in dense shale formations? These are among the goals of the Advanced Energy Consortium (AEC), headquartered at the Bureau of Economic Geology at the University of Texas, Austin. It brings together university researchers and industry scientists seeking scientific breakthroughs that would remove some of the mystery in unconventional gas and oil development miles below ground. The 4-year-old venture has spent about $40 million so far.

“Even though the industry has gotten good at fracturing, we don’t know the exact extent of the fracture networks,” Ahmadian said. That uncertainty can hamper a driller’s search for the best fracturing techniques or cloud decisions about how much additional drilling and fracturing is necessary to exploit a shale formation. So, in one part of the AEC agenda, the search is on for nano “contrast agents” that will penetrate the fractured shale rock and deliver a three-dimensional portrait of the fracking results. Nanoparticles are generally defined as being smaller than 0.1 micrometer in length (1 inch equals 25,400 micrometers). “We want to have a more intelligent understanding of our resources,” Ahmadian said. “If you have a previous understanding of how a particular reserve produces after a fracture, but you don’t know how far you’ve penetrated, you continue fracking.” But with a contrast agent, “you could get a much higher-resolution image of the fracture network and you might say, ‘This is telling me: Stop fracking, start production,'” he said. “The answer is not always drilling more wells. We want to give engineers better information so they can make better decisions.” The venture has enlisted as industry partners Schlumberger Ltd., BP America, BG Group PLC, Petrobras SA, Total SA and Royal Dutch Shell PLC. More than two dozen universities and close to 40 projects have been funded at this point, including research at the University of Texas, Rice University, Harvard University and the California Institute of Technology. Some of the original partners — Baker Hughes Inc., ConocoPhillips Co., Halliburton Energy Services Inc., Marathon Oil Corp. and Occidental Oil and Gas — have left the consortium.

“It’s at surface pressure, surface temperature. You can cut it open and see where the things went. The earth has high pressure, high temperatures, nasty chemicals and you can’t really get down there. It’s a tough challenge. Within a decade or less, we might see some smart fracks, and certainly in the nearer term, things could be put into the fracking fluids to enhance remote sensing capabilities.” [Emphasis added]

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