The Texas Bureau of Economic Geology is at the forefront of research into the energy supply. Its director, Scott Tinker, likes to say the bureau is driven by “three e’s” – energy, the environment, and the economy – all tied together by the fourth e: education. New technologies are making shale gas more accessible, but their advanced nature means challenges for scientists, engineers, and economists. In a Texas CEO Magazine interview, Tinker says we still have a way to go to make full use of shale gas, as well as alternative energy sources such as wind, solar, and even coal.
Question: Let’s look at the status of energy creation. What’s new in fracking?
Tinker: The challenge of fracking is to look at where your hydraulic fracture went. How much rock was contacted and how did it intersect with the natural fractures in the system? Right now the only way to know that is via remote sensing with micro-seismic data that’s put down holes or shoot sound waves across the system, use surface seismic data or chemical tracers.
Question: How are nanosensors different?
Tinker: With nanosensors you’ll put intelligent sensors into the frack fluid. Along with sand, which is the prop material that keeps the frack open, you make some of those sand grains “smart” and when they go in, they sense and measure the data, then store it; and with just a bit of power, you collect them back and download the data. This is not that many years away.
Closer, we think we can put things into the frack that would enhance the contrast of the microseismic – a velocity measure – that would enhance the contract of the elctromagnetic source – iron rich things – and would light up the fracture system better than we can today. Those are some nano things that will help characterize the network better.
Question: How far away are we?
Tinker: The contrast agents are closer – they are only a year or two or three away and the smart sensors are five to seven years away. Mostly it’s a function of continuing to reduce the size of things. We have a sensor that’s less than a centimeter on all sides, and it does all of that. It needs to be less than sub-millimeter, so we need some more advances.
Question: How will these little critters talk back? Is there a wireless play here?
Tinker: That’s a tough problem, especially if you’re in a hydrocarbon environment and transmission would be tough. We may just collect them back and download the information. Down the road further, we may be able to have them talk to one another by creating a daisy chain and back or create some nanowires into the fracture network and have them transmit back. This is tough technology.
The other big thing in frack is how to do better things with water – use less and different kinds of water or use other types of fluid than water. Water is a big issue. The question is how to accomplish what you need to do, which is crack the rock, and find other ways besides hydraulically.
Question: Other ways include microbes, CO2, thermal, and the water & sand combination. Can you update those techniques?
Tinker: CO2, microbes and heat strategies are other types of enhanced recovery. Today we have conventional reservoirs that flow and the pore systems are connected. In the future – in the unconventional reservoirs – there are pores that are so small you can’t even see them in high magnification.
In primary recovery you drill and drain things out; then in secondary recovery you might use water to push things out. With tertiary recovery, or enhanced recovery, you might use things like heat, chemicals or CO2 to encourage more to get out – even though we still leave some behind. Microbes are part of enhanced recovery – you put living things in instead of inert things. The goal is to get more from where you already found it.
If you think about motor oil, when you drop it on the garage floor made of cement, you can’t ever scrub it out because it seeps into the pores and it never leaves – in just the same way, it doesn’t like to leave the rocks, either.
Question: With deep water drilling, things are going to get ever deeper and Brazil seems to be on the leading edge of that technology, yes?
Tinker: Yes, and the challenge there is the infrastructure to operate in deep water. In two miles of water – 10,000 feet down – things are heading toward an ocean floor infrastructure versus an infrastructure on top of the water. In that deep water environment, you have remote operating vehicles, it’s cold, it’s high pressure, and it’s dark. Once you get to the ocean floor, you drill from there another one, two or three miles down into the sediment and rock which is a huge engineering challenge. You have a combination of water and rock and you need very deep well bores that are three to five or even six miles down from the floor into the deep rock. This is a new frontier which is called the deep shelf play in the Gulf. It’s relatively shallow water, but very deep drilling at depths we haven’t seen before. There is a lot new to learn about the rock, the temperatures, the pressures and there are new challenges and the potential for a great upside.
Also pioneered in Brazil is another type of drilling where there are salts – big, thick beds of salt. In Brazil we have something called pre-salt – drilling through all of the salt and through the rocks that were there before the basins opened up. The challenge is to see through the salt to see what you’re drilling, which is a seismic challenge because salt dampens the velocity and it’s hard to image in the waves. That technology is advancing a lot because salt behaves differently when it comes to managing the well bore.
Question: Arctic drilling – how does that fit?
Tinker: The challenge there is operational – ice. There’s a big set of basins north of Alaska called the Arctic Basins and Texas is small compared to the Arctic. Russia owns 11 time zones up there. It’s not that challenging geologically, but operationally, how do you do it? The ice moves continually.
Question: How about the alternatives – wind is getting a bigger play in Texas.
Tinker: Wind has taken off in Texas and we now have 10 gigawatts of installed capacity. Early on, one wind turbine generated one megawatt of power which can power about 1,000 homes for a year. The turbines are getting bigger and can generate three to four megawatts so the capacity per turbine is increasing.
In coal, we have 17 or 18 coal plants in the state and those are about a gigawatt each, so you can see how much capacity there is in wind. Of course, we don’t have access to that every day because the wind has to be blowing. Wind has gotten up to about one-third of our needs on some days. When the turbines are all moving, it’s 20 percent of the ERCOT grid and if you add a bit of solar, you get even more.
The challenge, of course, is managing that intermittent delivery. You can predict when the wind is going to blow every day, but there’s still a lot variation.
Question: Let’s talk about the storage technology – how good is it?
Tinker: Not so great. Big chemical batteries are being designed now to be put under every turbine and they are not cheap and they still drain. Unlike a gas tank on your car where you could leave in the tank for a year and it would still be there, the battery is going to run down.
There are other industry storage strategies. If the wind is blowing at night in West Texas, can we do something useful with that motion? Yes, you can take the energy from that motion and pump water up a hill and store it in a reservoir and let it go downhill through the turbine the next morning and create electricity. You could also compress air into tanks with the motion and then the compressed air is stored as potential energy and released when we need it. You could wind up a big flywheel and store the potential energy in the flywheel and then release the energy in the flywheel. You could also put electrons on advanced capacitors and then release that when you need it – another version of nanotechnology. You could also store heat instead of electrons . . . heating up some brine with the extra power and using it to boil water later to run a turbine. Heat doesn’t store as well, so you have to have insulators, so you’d design better buildings with peak storage in the floors and the walls and when it’s hot you store the heat and at night when it’s cooler, you release the heat and then you don’t have to draw power from the grid. You’d be able to manage your grid better with a smart grid and smart meters – I can use a smart meter with a smart switch and use my dryer at 2:00 a.m. instead of during the day when the demand for energy is higher.
Question: Will consumers adapt?
Tinker: Yes, if there are incentives and I get to pay less. If you sell electricity, you may not want your customers to pay less. There is likely to be some combination of government roles, industrial roles and academic roles. To get the intermittent energy into our lives we’re going to have to have a combination of all those things.
The other piece of that is transmission – to get power to our cities you have the big KV lines and they are expensive and they have line loss; so the further you have to go, the more you lose. There are better ways to transmit electricity like direct current instead of alternating current and convert it from DC to AC later.
Question: We have two nuclear plants in Texas. China and India are building reactors using thorium instead of uranium which is safer with lower admissions – yes?
Tinker: There are a lot of advantages to using thorium in reactors – the radioactivity of the waste products is less. The byproduct of uranium is plutonium, used in weapons and the byproduct of thorium isn’t plutonium, although it is radioactive, but far less so than uranium. The resources of thorium are relatively plentiful – it is a radioactive element so it does need to be mined. Using thorium is still a fission process of splitting things to create the heat that boils the water to make the steam that runs the turbines that make the power.
Question: Solar costs are going down and more and more people and businesses are collecting from their rooftops.
Tinker: The cost of solar is coming down if you have the right resources. If there’s good sun, limited clouds, high in the sky sun and direct sunlight, yes, and there are advances in the collectors. There are also advances being made on reflecting light from the sun through mirrors to generate heat to convert steam to run turbines. Although these all use a lot of land – it’s still expensive and if you have solar and the sun goes behind the clouds, you still need a backstop.
Tinker: There’s a project called TCEP – that stands for Texas Clean Energy Project. Summit Power is the company in West Texas that is taking on the TCEP project and they are building it on one of our two Texas FutureGen sites.
FutureGen, became a prototype and now there’s interest on the private side and former Dallas Mayor Laura Miller is Summit Power’s TCEP project manager. They’ve gone to one of our two sites and the project is now pretty far along – Texas will have the first clean coal power plant in the country. The captured CO2 would then be stored in the oil fields of West Texas – the same CO2 will then be used to do enhanced oil recovery. Here’s an excellent example of state government, private industry, and the academic scientific community working together. The Bureau of Economic Geology will measure, monitor and verify what’s going on. We won’t regulate it – the Railroad Commission will do that – we’ll be the scientific group to confirm what’s happening. Projects like this take a long, long time.
Scott Tinker, Ph.D. is also a Professor at the Jackson School of Geosciences at the University of Texas at Austin and an Allday Endowed Chair of Subsurface Geology. Last year Dr. Tinker created the feature-length documentary film, “Switch” where he lays out the path to energy’s future.
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