Molecular Tracers for Fracking Fluid

by Emil Morhardt

Stephanie Kurose, a law student at the American University in Washington DC, calls our attention to both the concept of, and two startups trying to push, micro-tracers which could be injected into fracking fluid so that if it escapes, we know whodunit. The idea is simple, if not yet operational; create some long-lived non-toxic chemical compound with enough potential variation that a different version could be mixed in with the fracking fluid for each individual well. The arguments for it, espoused by Kurose, are equally simple; drilling companies would know if they had a problem with leakage and could change their technology, falsely-accused drilling companies could exonerate themselves, and the public should feel much less angst about fracking if evidence of leaked fracking fluid fails to materialize (or vice versa.) It might be that drilling companies would resist in order to avoid any conclusive evidence that their wells have leaked, but so far no one knows because suitable tracers have yet to be deployed. The two startups giving it a shot are BaseTrace and FracEnsure. Continue reading

Instead of Flaring Natural Gas at Fracked Oil Wells, Use it to Treat Fracking Fluid

by Emil Morhardt

Seems like a good idea. Yael Rebecca Glazer just suggested it in a Masters Thesis in Engineering at the University of Texas at Austin. A major issue with fracking is that sometimes a lot of the fracking fluid that was pumped down the well to create the fractures comes back up, sometimes along with additional “produced” water, sometimes twice as much as was pumped down in the first place. On top of that, it is often so contaminated that it exceeds the capabilities of industrial treatment facilities, so it gets trucked to a nearby injection well and is reinserted. But injection wells are not always handy, and anyway, the water itself would be valuable if it weren’t so polluted. Meanwhile, although a fracked well might producing mainly oil, there is also often a fair amount of natural gas produced; but if there isn’t enough gas to make it economical to capture it and sell it, it is commonly flared—burned right there at the wellhead. This converts the natural gas to CO2 without using the energy released for anything at all. Maybe, thought Ms. Glazer, that free energy could be used onsite to power wastewater cleanup technologies that normally wouldn’t be considered because of their high energy costs. It also occurred to her that since lots of these wells are in the sunny, windy southwestern US, local photovoltaic panels or wind turbines might supply energy as well. This latter option is attractive when there are no convenient transmission lines to take the power offsite, even though solar or wind energy is abundant. Continue reading