PHILADELPHIA — Amid all the fuss over the water and chemicals consumed in hydraulic fracturing, few people pay attention to the other ingredient used in fracking a gas well: sand.
But John R. Hellmann does.
Long before the Marcellus Shale natural gas boom hit Pennsylvania, Hellmann and Barry Scheetz, Pennsylvania State University engineering professors, were consumed with researching “proppants” — the stuff pumped into oil and gas wells to prop open the tiny cracks created during fracking. The most common proppant is sand.
The Penn State researchers have developed a synthetic proppant they call PennProp that they say will work better than sand. The ceramic proppant looks like poppy seeds.
PennProp is made in Pennsylvania from mine waste, so Hellmann says it would recycle rock cuttings that now go to landfills. “The environmental advantages are pretty high on our list,” he said. “We like that whole idea.”
Such is the nationwide frenzy to drill for oil and natural gas in unconventional rock formations like shale that demand for proppant has gone bonkers. A typical Marcellus well now consumes 5 million pounds of sand, enough to fill 25 railcars. It all comes from Midwestern sand mines.
Marcellus drilling accounts for about 14 percent of the nation’s 79 billion-pound proppant market this year, according to the investment bank Global Hunter Securities L.L.C. That would fill a train stretching from Maine to California.
Since the first well was hydraulically fractured in 1949, engineers have experimented with many different proppants, including broken walnut shells.
ANDREW MAYKUTH The Philadelphia Inquirer July 1st 2011