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Small ceramic beads called proppants are often used during hydraulic fracturing operations to “prop open” the fractures in a tight hydrocarbon-bearing formation in order to allow natural gas and oil to flow out of the formation. 

Most common ceramic proppants are made from high-alumina-content minerals such as bauxite or high-purity kaolin clay that has been sintered to a high density. However, high-quality deposits of these minerals can be very far from oil and gas production fields, leading to high shipping costs to get the proppants to the well site.

The Energy & Environmental Research Center, in collaboration with the U.S. Department of Energy, has investigated the use of lower-alumina-content clays that are commonly available near the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota for making ceramic proppants. 

To further investigate whether or not these clays can, in fact, be used to make low-density proppant particles with the same strength as other ceramic proppants, Senior Research Advisor Dr. John Hurley responded to a joint funding opportunity from General Electric (GE) Oil and Gas and Statoil, which have launched a new collaboration to accelerate the development of environmentally and economically sustainable energy solutions.

The joint, technology-focused program is aimed at driving an industrial response to some of the biggest challenges facing global oil and gas development. This first “Open Innovation Challenge” is specifically aimed at improving the efficiency of proppants used in unconventional operations in order to reduce the impact of trucking on communities. Reducing trucking during this stage of shale development can largely be addressed by improving the efficiency of current proppants or through the development of new proppants.

Hurley’s proposal was one of five selected from around the world to tackle this challenge.

“I am very excited that this project was awarded because it will help us determine whether or not ceramic proppants can be made from clays that are not traditionally used, such as exist in North Dakota,” Hurley said. “If so, transportation costs and, therefore, costs of the proppants in general would be substantially reduced.”

Hurley continued, “What inspired me to propose the work is that up to 5 million pounds of proppants are used in the completion of a single horizontally drilled well in North Dakota. The transportation costs to transport ceramic proppants to North Dakota are very high. These costs could be saved if the proppants are made locally with lower-alumina-content clays. In addition, the ceramic proppants that I will be trying to make are lighter in weight than sand, which is also used as a proppant, so there would be less damage to road beds when they are transported by truck,” he said.

The judges’ panel, consisting of technical experts and management from both GE and Statoil, evaluated more than 100 applications from over 30 countries across a number of industries. Each winner will be awarded an initial cash prize of $25,000 and will be eligible to receive additional funding from an available discretionary prize pool of $375,000 for potential development or commercialization efforts.

For more information on the Challenge and the winners, visit