FALLING ENERGY PRICES, CHEAP FEEDSTOCK AND REDUCED GLOBAL DEPENDENCIES: SHALE GAS IS THE NEW BONANZA. FRACKING FLUIDS AND WASTE WATER TREATMENT SOLUTIONS CALL FOR INNOVATIVE SOLUTIONS.
Revolutions start from the underground — deep below the surface of America’s North-East lies the Marcellus Formation. Stretching from the Appalachians to Virginia, this layer of black shales has become America’s new Bonanza: Shale gas production has turned the country upside down.
Low energy costs (the price for natural gas in the US is roughly one third of the price in Europe) and cheap feedstock for petrochemicals could see investment projects spring up like mushrooms. These news are music to the ears of a crisis-ridden USA — in fact, a new study by HIS Global Insights estimates that drilling for oil and natural gas in shale rocks is already supporting around 1.7 million jobs, including such outside the energy and oil industry.
It has also made waves in Europe as the on-going souring of relations is set to continue with Russia with the most round of sanctions. Many European countries are looking to be less dependent on Russian imports of oil and gas and are now looking to the US to provide their LNG or start domestic extraction. Estimates from the Energy Information Administration (EIA) indicate that Europe is sitting on 470 trillion cubic feet (tcf) of unproved technically recoverable natural gas.
TALKING ABOUT A REVOLUTION
This forecast might be a bit too optimistic — but it could also mean a revolution: During the last decade, the US looked peaky and old. New players like China and India took the lead, while Europe’s long-time problem child Germany showed how a developed nation could stay abreast the shooting stars of Asia. Now, everything looks different: Cheap gas in the US threatens to lure energy intensive industries away from other regions — while America is rubbing its hands about the new and cheap raw material.
WHAT’S NEEDED FOR FRACKING
No other branch of oil and gas production is as dependent on process chemicals as shale gas: The hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) of shale formations needs not only huge amounts of water but also highly pressurized fracturing fluids. Although these agents vary in composition, they usually contain acids such as hydrochlorid acid or acetic salts that fraction and clean the rock at the wellhead. Other chemicals minimize the friction to enable higher pump pressures or break down molecular bonds within colloids. The New York Times estimates that between 2005 and 2009 more than 43 million liters of chemicals were pumped into the shales.
THE SHALE BOOM HAS JUST BEGUN
And the boom has just begun: The fracking market is expected to grow by 10 % per year until 2020, Frost & Sullivan states. “An opportunity for chemical companies to come in with their well-established R&D credentials and develop products that fit well into the hydro-fracturing market,” believes Frost & Sullivan analyst Michael Mbogoro.
A CHEMICAL ROMANCE
As crude oil is the dominant feedstock for chemicals, the shift to natural gas can bring dramatic changes: Products that are almost exclusively produced from crude, such as aromatics, are likely to be impacted. Analysts already predict the advent of bio-based alternatives to naphtha cracking, such as algae. Yet, other experts have set their sights on a true process dinosaur: A modified Fischer-Tropsch synthesis could be used to transfer syngas to long chain hydrocarbons for naphtha, kerosene, diesel or gasoline.
Syngas can be produced from natural gas by separating the methane proportion and oxidise it in a steam-reforming process. Therefore, oil and gas firms such as Total, Exxon or BP will most likely have to cooperate closely with chemical companies on the gas upstream market. Not only will they need process chemicals and agents but also the know-how and expertise for an all-new petrochemical value chain, analysts believe.
THE WATER CHALLENGE
The scale of the gas production brings another problem: In the Marcellus region alone, the amount of waste water from gas fields has increased by 570 % since 2004 as a result of the shale gas production. “We need to come up with technological and logistical solutions to address these concerns,” agrees Martin Doyle, professor of river science at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment. New solutions have to be tailored specially to the needs of the gas industry: As most wells are only used temporary, experts predict a boom in flexible and mobile water treatment setups. The technologies used must be both versatile and able to clean a lot of different contaminants, including chemicals.
“There are key opportunities for chemical companies to develop unique solutions for the specific problems we are dealing with,” Mbogoro says. Market volumes for chemical auxiliaries have grown significantly, yet many issues remain unsolved: The environmental impact, the treatment of wastewater and brine or the dependency on distinctive auxiliaries for fracking fluids still offer huge chances for innovation.
THE PUMP SOLUTION
In order to extract valuable natural gas, all of these chemicals need to be transported, by all types of pumps, in the extremely delicate process. Pump demand is set to increase at least 43.5% by the end of 2017 if exploration and permits continue to be introduced.
(Adapted from Processwordwide. Facts from Frost and Sulivan)