Industry Market Trends

What are the Benefits of Biodegradable Polymer Additives for Fracking?

May 09, 2013

Fracking 101. Credit: Halliburton. Fracking 101. Credit: Halliburton.

Fracking allows us to extract untold riches of previously unrecoverable natural gas and oil, which is lowering their prices and reducing the cost of things that use natural gas in production. Opponents of the procedure say there are serious environmental concerns, particularly with the materials used, which could seep into the groundwater or bubble up to the surface, contaminating the ground.

Hydraulic fracking shoots a highly pressurized mixture of water and sand or ceramics into an oil or gas reservoir several thousand feet below the surface of the earth, "often with the help of a small percentage of additives that aid in delivering that solution down the hatch," explains Halliburton, which drilled the first fracked well in the 1940s, on its website.

Water's Fine, Sand's Fine, What's the Problem?

The force of so much pressurized water creates "a network of tiny fissures in the impermeable rock," the site says, adding that the sand blasted into the newly-created cracks holds them open so the natural gas can escape. The operator then removes the water, and presto -- you have a well producing for the next 20 to 50 years.

Water's natural, sand's natural, the problem comes in that "additives" part. As industry journal Breaking Energy notes, there are "fears that the materials injected into the ground in the process, which include chemicals and proppants, may contaminate water supplies."

Because the sand acts as a "proppant" to hold the openings open, Ray Will, consulting director for chemical consultancy IHS, explains that in addition to chemicals and additives used to help convince the rock to fracture, some sort of gel is needed to hold the sand together to keep the fissure open.

Guar Gum: India's No. 1 Agricultural Export.

Thanks, now how about a million more bags? Thanks, now how about a million more bags?

A widely-used green-friendly proppant additive has been guar gum, a white powdery substance made from guar beans. It's safe (used widely in ice cream and toothpaste) and so popular that according to the Times of India, it's India's top farm export "thanks to the demand from the U.S. oil and gas industry" -- over the latest April-January period, India exported $4.9 billion worth of guar gum, far outstripping traditional Indian heavyweight exports basmati rice ($2.7 billion) and raw cotton ($2.6 billion).

But last year, guar prices shot up in the 900 percent to 1,000 percent range," The Times notes, and India supplies over 80 percent of the world's guar gum. And given the lack of a futures market in India supplies can be unpredictable. According to CNBC Halliburton officials attributed last quarter's operating income drop of 19 percent from Q2 2011 "due to increased costs, particularly for guar gum."

So fracking companies are casting about for alternatives. Mindful of the EPA breathing over their shoulder, they're searching for green-friendly additives that work as well as other chemical substances might -- in other words, biodegradable polymers.

Polymers to Replace "Classic" Fracking Fluids?

Last year industry journal Proppant Solutions noted that there's an entire "industry subsector decorated with eco-friendly service providers, testing companies, food related chemicals, treatment companies, and many others," such as Halliburton's CleanStim or Multi-Chem, intent on providing "chemical applications based on environmental safety and other performance factors."

"The oil and gas industry is looking at biodegradable polymers to help supplement or replace classical fracturing fluids," Blake Lindsey, the president of DaniMer Scientific, a U.S.-based bioplastic producer said about a year ago, adding that his company has "been asked by the oil and gas industry to develop biomaterials," and had in fact developed a controlled degradable biopolymer material.

But the industry's in its infancy, really. As far as biopolymers go, fracking's peanuts, hardly a blip on the screen. The action is in food packaging and the No. 1 market is Europe, where fracking's only slightly more popular than economic austerity measures. "Europe continues to be largest consuming region for biodegradable polymers, accounting for more than half of global total," wrote industry journal Plastics Today in late April 2013, citing "a newly-published IHS Chemical global market research report."

Fracking's Not Even On Radar.

What's driving biopolymers at the moment are plastic bag bans and global warming initiatives, which the IHS report believes will see production go from 269,000 tonnes in 2012 to nearly 525,000 tonnes in 2017. Fracking is little more than a rounding error to that growth.

Fast-food and beverage containers, dishes and cutlery are "the largest end-uses and the major growth drivers" of the industry now and for the foreseeable future, the journal says, adding that "in both North America and Europe, these markets account for the largest uses, and strong double-digit growth is expected in the next several years."

Uses for biodegradable polymers in fracking is mentioned once as an "other use," almost as an afterthought, along with biomedical applications, the way you'd mention the third-string quarterback in the team profile. "Landfill waste disposal" regulations and "stringent legislation" are driving the strong European market, while what growth there is in the North American biodegradable polymers market, which "has grown significantly in recent years," is due to the fact that they're more cost competitive with petroleum-based products.

Guar: Still The Best.

Bio-friendly alternatives to guar gum are being developed, but there isn't anything currently available with the reliability and quantities of guar gum. "With the guar shortage, there has been a renewed research and development focus on developing newer alternatives," Jennifer Miskimins, professor of petroleum engineering at the Colorado School of Mines told CNBC, which added that Halliburton is working on "PermStim" fluid and Schlumberger, another fracking operator, is developing "HiWay" as alternatives to guar gum.

Frankly, the chemicals used in fracking operations today are mostly biodegradable, and none are toxic to humans in large quantities. Some of them might make water unpleasant to drink, so great care needs to be taken to avoid any contamination to local water supplies.

Natural resources journal Straterra notes that of the two largest frackers, Halliburton and Baker Hughes, water and sand comprise 99 percent of what's shot down into the borehole, with other additives such as guar gum, borate salts, choline chloride, and hemicellulose enzymes, as well as sodium, potassium, and chlorine compounds, many of which are used in the processed foods industry.

Safe -- and pleasant. Safe -- and pleasant.

Unpleasant, But Safe.

Halliburton, for example, uses petroleum distillate to make the fluid slippery, and Straterra notes that "similar products are used in the manufacture of cosmetics such as hair, make-up, nail and skin products," as well as ammonium chloride (sal ammoniac) which "occurs naturally as a mineral, and is used in cough mixture, processed foods, in hair shampoo and in diverse industrial processes."

Hydrochloric acid, which occurs naturally in the stomach, is used as well, and once diluted with water as part of the fracking operation, "the acidity drops to around that of bread."

So it's not that biodegradable polymers would be all that much more green than what the industry mostly uses now, it's that they might be cheaper, more reliable, and maybe more effective.