While the mining of shale through hydraulic fracturing ("fracking") has given the U.S. increased oil production, tapping shale wells pose engineering challenges and have short productivity lifespans. Even though fracking has become hugely popular in recent years, it isn’t well understood on a molecular level, an oversight that scientists are currently working to correct.
Not the future of fracking?
Fracking is the process of drillers breaking hydrocarbon-full shale deposits apart and then flooding these underground wells with water and chemicals to make the gas rise to the surface. Opponents say fracking poses environmental concerns: the process requires lots of water, and even though gas-fired plants produce less CO2 than coal-fired plants, methane itself is a greenhouse gas that can leak from aging infrastructure.
A new development in the fracking industry has proposed a solution to environmentalists’ concerns with the practice. Scientists from Australia and France – a country that has banned fracking – suggest a new way to reduce some of these environmental concerns.
Their suggestion? Substitute high-pressure CO2 for water.
In their view, this substitution would trap carbon dioxide underground instead of releasing it into the atmosphere. It would also reduce or eliminate the environmental problems from drilling with water, and even make shale wells last longer.
The scientists used software to simulate how CO2 versus water molecules interact in common fracking practices. Currently, the scientists say that while water first flushes out the hydrocarbon gas in fracking, it later also forms a molecular seal that traps gas in the deposit. The scientists working on the project suggest that this trapping of gas might explain the decline in productivity in shale plants.
The scientists also say that water might not be the best substance to release the gas hydrocarbons from where they’re trapped. CO2 that’s "supercritical” – neither liquid nor solid – could prove to be the ideal solution for this process. Pressurized CO2 can be used to push out methane without creating the seal that water does. At the same time, it is likely to stay underground in this process, rather than being released into the environment.
The new technology hasn’t been proven yet, however. The study is currently theoretical, and it has only been run on computer models of molecular behavior. Before it can be applied to the oil fields, scientists need to run experiments on laboratory scales.
Even if tests prove effective, this CO2 fracking technology might not work in the shale fields. For one, "supercritical” CO2 isn’t cheap to make. Water, of course, is inexpensive to use, so economic factors will certainly need to be taken into consideration before the technology could be put into practice.
If this new CO2-replacement theory proves successful and economically feasible, the fracking industry could see yet another boom.
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