The manufacture of tiny ceramic beads as small as a grain of sand could become the next opportunity for western North Dakota.
Millions of pounds of the beads, worth billions of dollars, are being imported into the oil patch, where they're injected along with water and chemicals to prop open the miniscule fissures made by fracture-treating deep Bakken wells to make the oil flow.
North Dakota has generous clay deposits, and State Geologist Ed Murphy said his office is analyzing samples from two separate formations to determine if the clay-based ceramic proppant could be made here. Right now, it's imported from other states and countries, including Brazil and China.
Semi-trailers loaded with white plastic 1-ton bags zooming out to a well location are a common sight in the oil patch. The more common use of inexpensive sand to prop open the fissures is gradually morphing to the point where 40 percent of wells drilled use ceramics instead, said Monte Besler, who operates one of seven "frack" companies in the Bakken.
With the potential for 2,000 wells drilled a year in North Dakota, that adds up to 6 billion pounds of ceramic or sand proppant every year - each well will use 3 million pounds of proppant to hold the fractures open.
Murphy said his office has been responding to companies asking for information about North Dakota clay. The key ingredient is aluminum oxide, which gives the ceramic beads enough strength to hold the fissures open without being crushed under 10,000 pounds per square inch of pressure bearing down from above.
Ideally, clay used to make ceramic proppant has at least 40 percent aluminum oxide. Clay in the Golden Valley Formation, from which Hebron Brick clay is mined, comes close at 26 percent to 38 percent. His department has also sampled the Rhame Bed, found in the deeper southwest counties and those samples will be analyzed this winter. Some aluminum oxide might have to be imported in to create the right mix, Murphy said.
Great River Energy, known for coal-fired power generation in North Dakota, might help a startup company get into the proppant business here.
Great River's byproduct manager, Al Christianson, said his company will look at a business plan, perhaps as soon as the end of the year, from a group of scientists and engineers who are looking for investors in a North Dakota ceramic plant.
"They came to us. We need to see if what they're saying they want to do is feasible," Christianson said. Their idea is to build a plant near the clay source, which happens to be near the edges of the Bakken development, he said.
Besler, whose company specializes in the engineering and performance of fracking, said he believes ceramic sand, as it's called, could entirely replace natural sand if oil companies will spend more money up front for better production over the long haul. He said a North Dakota source would benefit the state because the money would flow in, rather than out.
"It would have to be a significant quantity," he said.
Besler said companies that use ceramic sand can expect 20 percent to 30 percent more oil from the well for years.
He said natural sand breaks down and can actually clog the fracture fissures, particularly at the point when a well is taken from flowing to pumping status.
"At that point, sand undergoes a catastrophic collapse," Besler said.
On the other hand, ceramic beads forced into fissures that are only 1/16- to 1/8-inch wide "at the most," don't collapse, and in some cases, allow wells to flow for a longer time before they have to be put on a pump, Besler said.
Nothing about well drilling is cheap, and that includes the price of proppant agents.
Oil companies spend from $1 million to $2 million for ceramic sand for every well they drill and about half that for natural sand.
Besler said there are two primary ways to make Bakken wells produce at their optimum. The first is the number of fracture stages - the more the better, because the more the oil-bearing rock is cracked open, the more oil is released. The second is the quality of the proppant that holds that rock open.