Perspective: The Marcellus Shale Boom as an Impetus for Technology Development

Strengthening domestic energy production has been a very hot topic for some time now, and for good reasons, such as drilling affect in the communities and environment, opportunities and consequences of developing an economy. American dependence on crude oil reserves from traditional foreign sources has become a more precarious situation with diminishing supply, skyrocketing demand, and geopolitical instability. To meet the energy needs of coming generations the charge is being led to bolster U.S. production, particularly with alternate and non-traditional energy sources. The natural gas extraction in the Marcellus Shale is an extremely valuable asset to petrochemical, which can convert ethane into a feedstock for their manufacturing processes in the downstream of the value-chain. Many chemical related business could indeed achieve lowest cost position in the world; thus strengthening our economic engine. Remarkably, many of the concerns and challenges associated with “Marcellus Shale” could be solved thorough chemistry related innovations and technology development.
One of the biggest windfalls for American energy in recent years has been the discovery of expansive natural gas reserves in the Marcellus Shale region of the Northeastern United States. Many of the most recent estimates peg recoverable gas supplies in the Marcellus at over 150 trillion cubic feet, with some experts suggesting a far more extensive untapped supply.

Of course, ongoing technological improvements in extraction methods continue to grow this figure. Much of the gas is found in shale deposits at depths of 7,000 to 10,000 feet which, in the past, made for a prohibitively high cost exploration and removal process. Areas which were not commercially viable for gas wells fifteen years ago are now able to be exploited thanks to advances like directional drilling, where bore holes can penetrate laterally at the target depth to magnify accessibility to local gas. As the promise of unlocking a torrential supply of domestic energy in close proximity to the demand-intensive regions in the Eastern U.S. has become a reality, both public and private sector investment has surged.  And with more R&D going into extraction methods, we have seen improvements in environmental impact as well as increased supply. The primary and most efficient means of natural gas extraction in the Marcellus region is hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”). Hydraulic fracturing is actually a well-established technology, coming into broader commercial use in the mid-20th century. Recent years, however, have seen an explosion in new fracturing technology. According to IP Spotlight, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office between January 2008 and August 2011 received more than 1,100 U.S. based patent applications which mention fracturing. This is an 80% increase over the previous 3-1/2 year period. This jump is a product of the shale gas boom – one that produced 140,000 jobs and more than $11 billion in value added in Pennsylvania alone in 2010.

On a basic level, fracking involves boring deep into shale formations and using very high pressure fluids to create fractures (or expand existing fractures) in the rock. This releases the trapped hydrocarbons for extraction. There has been no shortage of speculation as to the impact of the traditional fracturing process on local communities and water supplies, and the environment as a whole. These effects must necessarily be left to the experts to determine. What is certain now is that shale gas is a mainstream concept and a booming business, and the U.S. stands to benefit from better access to cleaner fossil fuels. What matters now to business is how they can find the safest way to exploit this resource without missing the boat. The most effective way to reach that goal is through innovation and investment in new technology.  And the more recent proliferation of the extraction process, investment, research, and regulatory pressure seems to be generating plenty of tech growth and secondary industry. Shale gas is a rapidly changing landscape. Areas like western Pennsylvania and Ohio are seeing new construction for wastewater treatment plants which process used fracturing fluids from gas wells. The plants typically operate under permits from state environmental agencies, which impose standards for use of new filtration and treatment technology. A competitive field of energy producers is striving to be the leader in the region by stepping up innovation. Chesapeake Energy, one of the largest gas producers, recently announced a new process which will allow used fracturing fluids to be recycled for new drilling at up to 100% efficiency, reducing both the burden on local water supplies and the need for wastewater processing installations. A new type of fracking method is also emerging, development from oilfield and shale gas giants like Halliburton and Schlumberger. “Super fracking” is based on several improvements to the existing process. New materials are being used to hold open shale cracks at the site of the fracture which allows a greater flow of hydrocarbons for a longer period of time. New types of pipe fittings for wells are making extraction much less time intensive and sparing about half of the surface water needed in the traditional process. And traditional plastic “valve” materials which, in the past, have had to be recovered in an expensive process after drilling are being replaced with new disintegrating materials. A Texas company called Jadela Oil is even experimenting with a waterless fracking process.
Natural gas itself is cleaner than other hydrocarbon fuels, which makes growing supply even more attractive and conducive to new tech. Burning natural gas for heat energy emits 30% less carbon dioxide than petroleum and 45% less than coal. Nitrogen oxides are reduced by two-thirds and sulfur oxides by nearly 99% compared to coal combustion. A rapidly growing supply of a cleaner hydrocarbon fuel is spurring new technology. Research is progressing in fuel cell technology which could expand on already robust electricity generation applications. Transportation is another promising sector. The U.S. is seeing growing fleets of government, public transit, and shipping vehicles powered by compressed natural gas. The Department of Energy speculates that a switch to natural gas in the U.S. transportation segment would reduce carbon-monoxide emissions by at least 90%, carbon-dioxide emissions by 25% and nitrogen-oxide emissions by up to 60%. There are even expectations to use natural gas in aviation, with estimates of 60% improvement in efficiency while decreasing harmful emissions.

Technology and innovation is developing very rapidly and is touted to present serious cost savings, as well as a reduced environmental impact. Developments like these are interesting, but also raise some important questions. In such a rapidly evolving business, what will gas producers have to do to stay relevant? The next few years should prove to be very exciting, as new technology and investment fleshes out alongside a developing regulatory scheme and a better understanding of the industry. Chemistry is necessarily at the forefront of tech expansion stemming from the Marcellus boom because the natural gas industry is chemical intensive. As natural gas becomes more prevalent, the broader chemical industry is presented with a great deal of opportunity. It will continue to benefit from access to clean, domestic energy, as well as the demand for innovative technology. Recycling and wastewater treatment is highly dependent on chemistry, as are the new technologies in extraction. The high ethane content in Marcellus Shale gas has led to plans for ethane crackers in the region. Renewable Manufacturing Gateway and Aither Chemicals recently reached a deal for a $750 million petrochemical facility which will use shale gas as its feedstock. Clearly, energy development is a sector where chemistry continues to be relevant and our success in energy independence or economic prosperity is still INNOVATION!