The Environmental Protection Agency and President Obama are making headlines today with the announcement of an initiative to slash coal pollution. The aim is to get each state to individually cut its current carbon dioxide emissions by 30 percent, with each state choosing how best to go about its business. You can be sure, though, that at least part of the cut would have to come from the coal-fired electrical plants that dot the black eyes of the American landscape.
You can also be sure that the whole thing will end up in court for several years and that the next President and congress could very likely repeal it before it sees the light of day. After all, no news is American news. But that’s neither here nor there.
With the coal industry once again in the news—as well as Canadian oil’s route through Nebraska in hot debate—it seems that hydraulic fracking isn’t getting nearly the amount of time on the 24-hour “news” channels that it should. I mean, I’ve almost gone consecutive bowel movements without hearing the term fracking, and America just can’t stand for that.
So I’m here to balance the equation and point out a recent study from Northwestern University that suggests we’re going about fracturing shale all wrong. We shouldn’t be using pressurized water. Oh no. Instead we should be blowing it up with an electric pulse arc.
An arc is basically what happens when a shit-ton of electricity jumps out of one wire and enters its nearby neighbor. The heat and electricity ionizes the gas between, creating a small space of plasma. Electric arcs get used in welding a lot, but on a much smaller scale than what would be needed to blow apart solid shale.
The ability of an electric pulse arc to blow apart shale sounds shaky to me, but I’m no expert. Zdenek P. Bazant sure sounds like a name that knows what its talking about when it comes to science, though, so I will defer to the physics outlined in the paper he wrote.
The idea is to use the kinetic energy of high-rate shearing generated by an underground explosion caused by an electric pulse arc to reduce the rock to small fragments. Since there’s no water being pumped underground, there’s little risk of contamination issues. But would it work?
Bazant has already shown that the basic idea works well in the laboratory with exploding concrete instead of shale. And he claims that the mathematics between the concrete and shale is similar, indicating that it’s at least a viable thought. But would it really work?
“This theory is not proven for fracturing shale—we don’t know whether it would work—but it is an idea that is worth investigating,” Bažant said. “An oil company or a national laboratory would need to conduct experiments and learn how to handle the practical issues.”
My money would be on a national laboratory. I’m pretty sure oil companies are far too busy spending their billions of dollars on lobbyists to keep the status quo and their money flowing in rather than looking for ways to fundamentally change everything they do in the name of the environment.
But I for one sure would like to see somebody do some follow up studies.
The paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences is titled “Comminution of solids caused by kinetic energy of high shear strain rate, with implications for impact, shock, and shale fracturing.” Bažant and Ferhun C. Caner are co-authors of the paper. -