Can Fracking Become Greener? A Talk with Halliburton’s Tech Team

February 21, 2014 Updated: February 21, 2014

As a leader in the hydraulic fracturing industry, Halliburton is working to decrease the environmental impact of this method used to access natural gas in shale rock. Reducing the amount of fresh water required, for example, saves money as well as natural resources.

First we’ll look at how hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, works; then we’ll look at the improvements Halliburton is focusing on.

How Fracking Works

The process fracking requires a drilling team to start the work. The team drills beneath the water table reservoir, cements the wellbore below the table, and then drills deeper and horizontally into the layer of shale. Once this is done, the drilling contractor leaves and the fracking company takes over.

First, the fracking company sets off “perf” charges to perforate holes that start the fractures in the shale. The frack team then pumps in tons of water mixed with acids and chemicals. The solution cleans out cement cuttings, lubricates the wellbore, and fractures the rock by hitting it at a force of 13,500 pounds-per-square-inch (psi).

The trapped gas, oil, and wastewater (called “produced water”) is released to the surface.

The production team captures and processes the hydrocarbons, while filtering out the flowback (up to 30 percent of the water used) and produced water into a frack pond, where it aerates for weeks before it is sent to a water treatment plant for disposal.

The Logistics of Water-Use

For each fracking operation, thousands of trucks are deployed to move the water to the site. That puts a severe strain on the local environment, damaging rural roads not designed for heavy traffic.

The ratio of barrels of water to oil coming to the surface during production is 3-to-1, according to Walter Dale, Halliburton Water Solution’s strategic business manager in Houston, Texas. “In the Marcellus formation [in New York], which is deeper, the ratio will probably move to 4.5-to-1,” he said.

Requiring thousands of trucks to deliver fresh water drives up the average cost of a well to about $7.6 million, including land acquisition. As a result, some private equity firms have financed more than $1 trillion in water (not gas) pipeline projects to deliver fresh water closer to sites, reducing the costs of, and dependency on, the armadas of trucks.

But if more water in the operation could be reused onsite, fewer trucks would be needed to move it, with the cost benefits passed on to the owners, residents, and the environment. That’s what Halliburton has set out to do.

Dale noted that more efficient fracking can only be achieved by advances in technology that come from industry leaders, such as Halliburton, to find solutions that work in the field. Like all breakthroughs, the steps to success are incremental, with several phases culminating in an overall improvement.

Halliburton’s Water Technology: 3 Platforms

Dale said: “Advancing Halliburton’s products, R&D [research and development] effort is our core business. At the end of the day, we ask, ‘How can we improve our product lifecycles … [and] technology organization for our customers?’”

He explained, “We have three R&D platforms that focus on biocide reduction, water treatment and recycling, and a third that enhances fluid adjustments.”

Biocide Reduction

Biocide is a general term for a substance capable of killing living organisms. Biocides are used in fracking to eliminate bacteria in the water that produces corrosive by-products.

Halliburton uses a CleanStream process for controlling bacteria with UV light, thus minimizing the need for biocide. Halliburton has a mobile treatment machine that uses CleanStream to “treat 100 barrels of water per minute,” Dale said.

Water Treatment and Recycling

Halliburton’s advanced CleanSuite fracking technology includes CleanWave, which uses an electrical charge to coagulate and then remove the suspended matter in the water thus making the water reusable.

Dale said: “Water is a big challenge for the industry. We need access to it and treatment facilities to deal with flowback and produced water.”

While working to improve treatment techniques, Halliburton is also working on adjusting the fluid used in the first place to reduce the need for treatment.

Fluid Adjustments

Halliburton has eliminated some legacy chemicals and replaced them with “food-grade thickening agents, like gums and sugars,” Dale said, keeping mum on the recipe to protect Halliburton’s intellectual property.

The R&D team also developed the fluid UniStim so the need for treatment would be minimal. UniStim is a fracking fluid that allows for greater reuse of water than
conventional fluid.

“There were gaps between products. Thus we launched UniStim treatment fluid last year that allowed us to fill the gap and use 100 percent of the available impaired waters with minimal treatment and without dilution,” he said.

“[It takes time] when we do recycle the 12 billion gallons of Bakken-produced and flowback water that are hauled to a disposal well and used every day,” Dale said of the Bakken shale formation underlying parts of Montana and Midwest.

“If we can use those wastewaters being hauled to a disposal well at a low cost, it will negate the fresh water usage and trucks on the road. We can do that now with UniStim and use these produced and flowback waters to reduce the fresh water needed,” he said.

Halliburton also aims to minimize the cost associated with adding brine to fresh water to prevent clay swelling. Clay swelling occurs when the solution reacts with the clay in the ground; the clay can block the flow of water if the swelling isn’t prevented with brine.

Measured Approach

Walter Dale carefully explained that developing the technology to reduce fresh-water use and to field test it is time-consuming.

It’s important for Halliburton’s R&D to perform “the piloting and testing on small wells first and [then] integrate the products on a large scale in field-level programs,” Dale said.

Currently, companies like Halliburton have not rushed into production or other logistics, “which is a huge challenge for customers,” he said. “We have to look at the total cost of water first. How can we reduce that? If we change the process too quickly without learning, we increase risk and the well schedule. We introduce and test new solutions, as long as they don’t impact the well schedule in a negative way,” Dale concluded.

In hydraulic fracturing, as with most projects, time is money. Or in the case of fracking, water is money and processing it is a time-consuming part of operations.

If the industry can reduce the amount of fresh water used in the process, it will be a win-win situation for everyone involved.

James Grundvig is an Epoch Times blogger and CEO of Cloudnician LLC, a mobile-cloud startup with big data pull. He has 25+ years of engineering-construction experience on projects of scale.