December 18, 2013

Beyond fracking: University of Wyoming scientists look for ways to boost oil and gas production


Terms like horizontal drilling and “fracking,” as hydraulic fracturing is commonly referred to, are well known now. The two technologies have sent U.S. energy production soaring in recent years, as previously inaccessible reservoirs of oil and gas have been unlocked in places like North Dakota, Pennsylvania and New York.

American natural gas production is up by more than a quarter on the decade. In October, crude oil production reached daily levels not seen since 1989. And a recent report by the International Energy Agency projected the U.S. will become the world’s largest oil producer by 2015, surpassing the likes of Saudi Arabia and Russia.

Time to take step back and breathe a little, right? Not exactly.

Scientists at the University of Wyoming are looking at new ways to improve oil and gas recovery even further. It sounds counterintuitive at first pass. How do you improve upon the technologies that will make the U.S. the world’s energy leaders in two years’ time?

Well, consider this. The recent energy boom has largely centered on shale formations. Techniques like fracking and horizontal drilling usually help recover between 4 to 12 percent of the oil and gas those formations are estimated to contain, leaving a significant prize left trapped within the ground.

“What we want is to go beyond horizontal drilling and fracking,” said Vladimir Alvarado, associate professor of chemical and petroleum engineering at the University of Wyoming. “That is a starting point … How do we access more? That is the real R&D question.”

The university researchers like Alvarado have a significant partner in their quest. ExxonMobil donated $2.5 million to the School of Energy Resources Improved Oil and Gas Recovery program in February. The state made a matching $2.5 million contribution of its own.

So how does one go about improving oil and gas production in shale formations? In several ways it turns out. One is relatively simple: improve collaboration between the scientists that work in the energy sector.

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