As critics decry the large quantities of water that fracking demands, putting pressure on resources, manufacturers and energy-services firms are touting new technologies that use less.
For example, Houston-based Baker Hughes has developed a technique called VaporFrac, which forms a foam-like substance that uses much less water than traditional fracking systems. VaporFrac is made up of 95% inert nitrogen and 5% water, which becomes like foam during use.
The system also uses an ultra-lightweight proppant. (Proppants are used to keep a shale fracture open.) Harold Brannon, Baker Hughes' vice president of technology, says the substance "is essentially buoyant in the fluid system to mitigate proppant-settling issues with conventional proppants, such as sand." Brannon says the system has been used in shallow fracturing applications of less than 7,500 feet.
So far, the results have been positive. Baker Hughes plans to use the system in the future, Brannon says.
Calgary, Canada-based GasFrac Energy Services has developed a waterless fracking method that uses liquid petroleum gas (LPG), which takes on the consistency of a gel when pressurized. The LPG system has been used in the Utica shale formation in Ohio. But GasFrac, one—if not the only—developer of the LPG system for fracking, has been having financial difficulties and recently went through a top management shake-up.
Pittsburgh-based Chester Engineers is one of a few companies testing a fracking method that uses air jets on the drill head, eliminating the need for water. SAIC's Jim Kolhaas says the technology "is not widely accepted, and it's unclear whether the performance of the frack job is adequate to make the wells economical. But it is kind of the new technology on the block."
Kate Sinding, senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, notes that although NRDC has not been able to adequately study some of the newer waterless fracking systems, "in theory, approaches that reduce the amount of water you need and the amount of wastewater you generate are good. But the question is, what are you substituting for that freshwater, and are you creating potential for maybe even more severe issues?"
Editor's Note: An earlier version of this article referenced a company called Chimera Energy, which claimed to have developed a waterless fracking technlogy. However, the company did not return calls, and ENR was unable to verify the legitimacy of the firm's claims.