Technology draws bead on hydraulic fracturing

┬áJ.R. Ewing never mentioned ceramic proppant on “Dallas.” Nor is it part of the plot in “Promised Land.”

But that’s Hollywood. Drilling in the vast shale fields of Texas, North Dakota and elsewhere in the United States may not look much different from the drilling many people remember from earlier booms, but the technology used to break apart shale rocks – and hold the cracks open, allowing fossil fuels to flow into the well – has created a new wave of entrepreneurs.

Horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing allow companies to pull oil and natural gas from dense rock formations by blasting chemicals, sand or ceramic beads, along with millions of gallons of water, deep underground to break up rock and release the hydrocarbons trapped inside.

Most drillers still use sand, especially in shallow or low-pressure wells. But a growing number of companies have formed to produce tiny ceramic beads, known as ceramic proppant, for use in the wells, based on research showing the beads can penetrate farther into the rock and hold up better under pressure, increasing the productivity of wells.

Tough competition

Count Gary Davis, a real estate developer and investor from Austin, as among the new evangelists for ceramic proppant.

Davis and a group of investors bought 400 acres in West Central Texas and set out to prove that the beads, traditionally made from specialized types of clay found in only a few parts of the world, could instead be made from clay found almost anywhere.

Another company, Oxane Materials, is hoping the advantages of its product, developed in a lab at Rice University using nanotechnology, will outweigh its higher cost.

The competition is tough, especially as drillers try to control costs; even market-leader Carbo Ceramics reported a slight drop in sales during the third quarter of 2012, although CEO Gary Kolstad said sales were up for the year.

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He quotes studies showing that ceramic proppant can increase initial production and ultimate recovery rates by more than 20 percent.

But most U.S. wells that require proppant – a generic term that includes sand, resin-coated sand and ceramic proppant – use sand, which is less expensive.

Michael Economides, an engineering professor at the University of Houston, said that’s often a good decision.

Despite the improved production with ceramic, Economides said the cost – he estimates it can be four to 10 times as much as sand – isn’t always worth it.

But he and other experts say some formations require ceramic proppants because sand can fail in a deep or high-pressure well. Ceramic proppant is used offshore, as well.

“If they frac with sand and the well dies within a few months because the sand all crushed, that’s a bad investment,” said Jon Olson, associate professor of petroleum engineering at the University of Texas at Austin.

Nanotechnology edge

Ceramic proppant has been around for decades, since hydraulic fracturing first was used with vertical drilling. It began to draw new attention after fracturing was paired with horizontal drilling in U.S. shale plays, boosting demand for all types of oil field services.

New companies jumped into the sand business.

Most of the sand used in fracturing comes from Wisconsin and elsewhere in the upper Midwest; there is also a fracturing sand operation in Central Texas.

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Carbo Ceramics, based in Houston, sold a record 1.6 billion pounds of ceramic proppant for the year that ended Sept. 30; it also sells resin-coated sand and has manufacturing plants in the U.S., Russia and China.

A number of startup companies have entered the field.

“It’s always nice to say we predicted the future,” said Andrew Barron, a Rice University chemistry professor whose lab utilized nanotechnology to design the proppant sold by Oxane Materials. “We were in the right place at the right time as the market grew.”

The technology could have been used a number of different ways, but Barron said researchers considered proppant the most economically viable.

Oxane’s proppant is hollow, so it is lighter but still stronger than other proppants, he said.

Although it is more expensive than conventional ceramic proppant, Barron said the results are better.

“There’s some education required,” he said. “There’s a reluctance to be first. But no one wants to be second, either.”

Davis has a different sales pitch for Brownwood Clay Holdings.

He and the other investors bought the property near Brownwood in 2011 and began compiling possible uses for its clay deposits, which had been used for brick and tiles.

Ceramic proppant was on the list, even though it usually has been made from bauxite or kaolin, rather than common clay minerals.

Success not guaranteed

The company filed a provisional patent for its process in July and is looking for a company to build a manufacturing plant in Brownwood, Davis said.

It has tested the process on common clay found elsewhere, he said, suggesting that it would ultimately be able to produce proppant at shale plays almost anywhere. That could reduce transportation costs for raw materials as well as for the finished product.

But Brownwood Clay Holdings and other start-ups aren’t guaranteed success.

Even so, Economides said ceramic proppant remains attractive to investors because hydraulic fracturing has grown so dramatically over the past five years.

Future international growth – in places shale fields have been identified but are largely untapped – could provide an even more lucrative market, especially if local deposits of sand prove unsuitable, he said.

Kolstad, the Carbo Ceramics CEO, is philosophical about companies’ reluctance to use more expensive proppants after spending millions of dollars to drill a well.

“In the oil patch,” he said, “we’ll step over a dollar to pick up a nickel.”