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September 2, 2015

Fracking Better


A researcher examines a 3D subsurface reservoir image at Idaho National Laboratory’s computer-assisted virtual environment, or CAVE facility. (Energy Department)

“The state of hydraulic fracturing as is, is not really good,” said Iraj Salehi, a fellow at the Gas Technology Institute, speaking Tuesday at an Energy Department seminar hosted by the Unites States Energy Association.

Production from hydrofracked oil wells decreases dramatically, petering down to almost nothing in several years, resulting in production of about 5 percent of the oil that exists in formations. Meanwhile companies move on to drill more wells to provide for that lost production.

“It’s quite inefficient,” Salehi said. “You’re wasting lot of water and money and energy fracturing.”

Part of the problem is that operational knowledge of what is taking place during hydrofracturing is rudimentary. Fractures do not behave the way theory suggests, opening sporadic incomplete pathways for oil.

“To get better than that, we need to understand the dynamics of hydraulic fracturing,” he said — not an easy proposition, given that hydrofracturing is occurring in uncertain geologic conditions a mile below the surface.

One way to understand what is happening in the subsurface is to go down there, said Srikanta Mishra, a senior energy researcher at Battelle, who proposed an underground laboratory to evaluate real field conditions in a hydrofracked site, similar to the Mont Terri project in Switzerland.

The presence of fractures can also be assessed by measuring tiny electric signatures created from fluid flow.

Using less water and fewer trucks for the same level of production could be an environmental benefit, said Doug Hollett, director of the Energy Department’s geothermal technologies office.

“I think that’s actually very, very important,” he said.

Innovations to better understand fracturing could have applications in geothermal, carbon capture and nuclear waste disposal applications. Better fracturing could also benefit research the department is doing into creating reservoirs for creating electricity from natural heat in the earth.

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