FuelFix takes a look at the latest group of businesses trying to make money off of the domestic shale drilling boom: companies producing ceramic beads that can be used instead of sand in hydraulic fracturing mixes.
Sand plays an important role in the fracking process: the grains help maintain the cracks in the shale rock that the drillers create by blasting chemical-laden fluid deep underground.
Fracking’s rise has made sand much more valuable, but health administrators have also warned that rig workers are putting themselves at risk, if they come into contact with too much of it on drilling sites.
Most drillers still use sand, especially in shallow or low-pressure wells. But a growing number of companies have formed to produce tiny ceramic beads, known as ceramic proppant, for use in the wells, based on research showing the beads can penetrate farther into the rock and hold up better under pressure, increasing the productivity of wells.
Count Gary Davis, a real estate developer and investor from Austin, as among the new evangelists for ceramic proppant.
Davis and a group of investors bought 400 acres in West Central Texas and set out to prove that the beads, traditionally made from specialized types of clay found in only a few parts of the world, could instead be made from clay found almost anywhere.
Another company, Oxane Materials, is hoping the advantages of its product, developed in a lab at Rice University using nanotechnology, will outweigh its higher cost.