The process involves drilling — but for Will Fleckenstein, an adjunct professor of petroleum engineering at Mines, it's far from boring.
"We're right in the middle of this nexus of unconventional oil and gas recovery," Fleckenstein said. "This could be bigger than Facebook, and the number of people who really understand it is very, very small."
Louisville-based FracOptimal was born out of collaboration between Fleckenstein and entrepreneurs at the Boulder Innovation Center, now Innovation Center of the Rockies. Fleckenstein wanted to license, patent and market the new "fracking" technology — the first time Mines' petroleum-engineering department had developed a process to be patented — and the center helped him start the private company.
At the center he met Todd Flaska, who had a master's degree in marketing from UCLA, had been a senior business development manager at Sun Microsystems, and had managed strategic alliances for Louisville-based Storage Technology Inc.
The team formed FracOptimal, and Flaska, who became chief executive in February 2010, developed the business plan, applied for the patent and sold the technology and development option to a worldwide oil-and-gas services company.
Drilling for oil or gas is time-consuming, complicated and expensive. About two-thirds of new U.S. wells involve horizontal bores and extract only about 10 percent of the hydrocarbon that could be available along that bore, Fleckenstein said. The process involves boring a single vertical well down to the hydrocarbon-bearing rock — sometimes nearly three miles below the Earth's surface. The bore then continues horizontally for up to two miles. The rock surrounding the horizontal bore is sealed off in sections called "stages," and fluid — containing water, sand and chemicals — is pumped into the rock at intense pressure to fracture it and release the pockets of oil or gas. The petroleum is supposed to enter the well casing and then be pumped to the surface.
The problem is that to keep that water pressure high enough to create a large network of fractures, the stages must be kept short, and the number that can be placed along the horizontal bore is limited.
The technology developed at Mines, Flaska said, can use an unlimited number of stages and can fracture them with equal pressure — and the balls it uses to separate the stages can be sensed from the surface.
If the technology results in even a little more productivity, Fleckenstein said, it's worth it. "If you're able to increase the productivity of one of these wells by 20 to 50 percent, it has tremendous monetary value."
Not only that, added Flaska, but it can save water as well.
"It's never been used in a real well yet," he said, "but we believe we can do it with 20 percent water reduction — but that's a real guess."
Selling the technology is far from the bottom of the creative well for FracOptimal, Fleckenstein said.
"We now have a great mechanism to develop a commercialization process" for this type of technology, he said.
One option is to partner with service companies that pump fracking fluids, Fleckenstein said. "They can take our technology and combine it with other technologies in their product line," he said. "That would make all their services more valuable."