The Office of Fossil Energy has given a $3.5 million grant to the University of Kansas to look into a way of improving the fracking process. It is their plan to develop “smart microchip proppants.” Let’s take a look at what the hydraulic fracking process entails, what proppants are, and why the industry needs smart ones.
First, a well must be drilled. It is directed down until it reaches the layers of shale. This shale has many thin layers filled with tiny cracks where the gas resides. To more easily release the resources, these cracks need to be made larger. A mixture of water, sand, and chemicals are pumped down the well at high pressure to fracture the shale. When the cracks are formed or enlarged, the sand in the water (i.e., proppants) is forced into the cracks to prop them open. Without these proppants, the newly formed and widened cracks would close up when the pressure from the water ceases. The water is removed, the proppants do their job of holding the cracks open, and the gas is extracted.
Why proppants need to be smart
The idea is to create proppants with the ability to let the drilling engineers know where they are and how they are spread. This will allow better visualization of how the fractures are laid out, and what the next best course of action should be. This will save time and money by increasing efficiency. Masoud Kalantari, the Kansas University assistant professor of chemical and petroleum engineering and director of the Computational Earth Science and Smart Analytics Lab, described it like this:
When they are remotely powered, they provide their location signal back to the wellbore. This is the way they’ll communicate. It’s like sending thousands of tiny GPS units underground. Each one of them will provide a signal to the location of those microchips. Based on that, you can generate a detailed visualization of how the proppants have propagated.
The proposed smart microchip proppants will be .0006 inches in size, and they will need to be durable in order to withstand the pressure of the shale fractures. There is not yet a battery small enough to accommodate them, so instead of a battery, the University of Kansas is also developing a tool to be inserted into the borehole that will send out electromagnetic energy to power the smart proppants.
The grant is not only providing a possible new technology for the oil and gas industry, but it is providing jobs, research opportunities and training for doctoral students.