Hydrofracking is quickly becoming a useful tool in unlocking new oil and natural gas fields, and new research at the University of Wyoming has the attention of energy companies.

One unknown about hydrofracking involves rocks and minerals encompassing certain reservoirs, and John Kaszuba, UW associate professor of geology and geophysics, and his colleagues are working to answer some of the unknowns of hydrofracking involving rocks and minerals around some deposits.

“The whole process of developing unconventional reservoirs is a process of injecting fluids into the subsurface and then there’s over-pressurization that fractures the formation so that oil can flow,” he said. “But once the fluids penetrate those fractures, there’s a potential for geochemical changes to take place, and we are investigating those potential changes.”

The unconventional reservoirs Kaszuba refers to are shale oil and shale, specifically in the Powder River Basin. Fracking is a mainstay of getting hydrocarbons — oil and natural gas — out of the rock.

“(Companies) take a formula and pump it down-hole and that will serve two purposes — it will pressurize the formation so that it’ll fracture, therefore allowing the hydrocarbons to flow,” Kaszuba said. “The fluid will also contain proppant, such as quartz sand, and the fluid takes those and leaves it in the fracture so that when the pressure drops, the proppant keeps the fracture open.”

Researchers hope to figure out how hydrofracking formula could react with the rock — it doesn’t look into how the oil could move in the reservoir, said Brandon McElroy, professor in the Department of Geology and Geophysics.

“It has nothing to do with (the oil’s) physical movement,” he said “It’s answering ‘How does the fluid geochemically interact with the rock.’ It could make new minerals that might fill up the rock’s pores and make it so the oil can’t get out.”

The Cretaceous Tight Oil Consortium, comprised of companies funding the university, is not gaining any insider secrets, McElroy said, but rather earlier access to some of the raw figures used for final research papers.

“The entire reason for the Consortium is to support research,” he said.

This information can be important to energy companies, Kaszuba said, as knowing how and why fluids react the way they do provides valuable insight.

“It can inform you how or where to drill, or how to alter your production process,” he said.

Possibly the most important part of the research process is the students gaining real-world research experience, Kaszuba said.

“We have grad students doing this work, the grad students today are the industry professionals tomorrow,” he said. “We’re training people to think critically, solve problems and communicate the results.”

Future efforts will likely expand the research into other areas.

“Right now, were looking at how the rocks and the minerals respond to the frack fluids,” Kaszuba said. “We didn’t worry about the oil, gas or organic matter because you have to start somewhere, and we wanted to start at something simple before adding complexity. The next step is to worry about what the oil, gas and organic matter is doing.”

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