Medical material may cure fracking's dependency on sand

It takes many tons of sand and hundreds of truck trips to support hydraulic fracturing operations. Sand mixed with water is used to prop open the tiny fractures and allow oil and gas to flow freely. Getting the material to the fracking site has a tremendous impact on nearby communities and leaves a giant environmental footprint. GE (Fairfield, CT) and energy company Statoil (Stavanger, Norway) recently launched an open innovation challenge to find ways to reduce the use of sand in onshore operations, and they have now announced five winners. One of them is Bioastra (Montréal), which has developed a platform of physiologically responsive biopolymers used in medical and other applications. The materials, which can change from liquid to solid in the body in response to temperature and other stimuli, apparently can also work wonders for fracking.


Photo courtesy Tom Payne/AP Statoil.

Bioastra developed composite particles that swell up to 10 times their initial size in liquid, notes a news release distributed by challenge organizers. The beads are lightweight, extremely strong and much smaller in size than other proppants—industry jargon for the materials used to "prop open" the fractures. Similar to a material initially developed for artificial cartilage and occlusion agents for surgery, the particles can fit into small fissures and conform to small cracks in the formation. They are also more buoyant than sand, facilitating better suspension in fluid.

"We are working on things such as injectable implants that respond to external stimuli like temperature, and change from liquid to solid in the body," Bioastra founder and CEO Sumitra Rajagopalan told Product Design & Development. "But to be honest, the material doesn't care whether you put it inside the body or inside an oil well."

Rajagopalan founded the company in 2008 to solve one specific problem, she says: "To create a self-cooling garment to protect one billion of my compatriots against heat stress in my native India. Open innovation built our company and got us a dream slate of Fortune 500 clients to work on a range of solutions from medical devices to smart textiles to oil and gas." The so-called smart polymer technology has limitless applications, according to the company, but it has focused on four key vertical markets: packaging, textiles and medical devices, energy and clean technology and robotics and information technology.

The four other winners are:

  • Semplastics (Oviedo, FL), which advocates the use of a liquid polymer that is cured to a solid state and then fired to make small, spherical particles with half the density of sand.
  • Biopolynet (Fredericton, NB, Canada), which has created a coiled biopolymer fluid additive that increases viscosity and, to some degree, stickiness. The product is currently used to prevent erosion in sand dunes.
  • University of North Dakota Energy & Environmental Research Center (Grand Forks, ND), which has developed a proppant that uses local non-premium ore source rock rather than ceramics with high alumina content typically sourced far from the oil and gas basins. The material is 40% less dense than ceramic proppants, according to the university.
  • Hoowaki (Pendleton, SC), which developed an alumina ceramic x-shape proppant in association with Shell. The material reportedly flutters as it moves through liquid, creating drag, reducing settling and wedging more effectively in fractures than currently used materials.

Each of the winners will receive $25,000 in cash and will be eligible to receive additional funding from a prize pool of $375,000 for potential development or commercialization of the technology.

To learn more about the challenge and the winners, go to

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