New Inventions

What’s Everyone Fracking Talking About?

Written by Imran Yusuf | New Inventions | Friday 28th June 2013 15:43:00 GMT

It’s the buzzword of the moment, but what does Fracking involve – and what does it mean for engineers ?

Some say fracking is the promised land, others fear a doomed future. (Photo: UKBERRI.NET)

Some say fracking is the promised land, others fear a doomed future. (Photo: UKBERRI.NET)

As an engineer, you need to know about fracking. Don't just take it from me: the subject has even inspired a controversial new Jason Bourne movie
So what is fracking?
In short, it’s the process of extracting gas (and also oil, especially in the US) from shale rock.
Shale rock stores gas tight inside. Removing the gas is a complex procedure. This is called hydraulic fracturing – or fracking – which is the breaking up of the rock to release the gas. A mixture of water, sand and chemicals is pumped into the rock at immense pressure, and the gas flows back the other way through pipes. 
Fracking is huge in the US. Gas and oil output has increased by 38% since 2008, according to official figures. President Obama even said, during his State of the Union address in January 2012, that due to fracking the US has “a supply of natural gas that can last America nearly 100 years.” Geopolitics is being redrawn, with the US expected to overtake Saudi Arabia and Russia as the world’s biggest producer of oil and gas within five years.
Some go as far as saying that the reason for US economic recovery is fracking. "The optimism felt by American factories is easy to explain. Energy costs have plunged. The development of hydraulic fracturing, or ‘hydro-fracking’, has sent gas prices to less than a third the level charged in Europe — quite some factor if you’re an energy-hungry manufacturer wondering where in the world to locate."
The British government is also very excited, and why not, with reports like the following: “If only 10 per cent of the 1,300 trillion cubic feet that the British Geological Society believe lies under the North of England could be extracted it would be enough to supply the country with gas for 25 years.”
So why is it so controversial that Jason Bourne has to sort it out?
Although fracking has taken off in the US to the delight of those who want new ways of solving looming energy crises, this development has been to the dismay of some environmental campaigners.
The latter group have two main concerns: the amount of water needed to fracture the rock, and the chemicals which go into the mixture which could contaminate water around the fracking site.
It's also been suggested that fracking causes earthquakes, but recent research indicates this is nothing to worry about, as the seismic activity is on such a small scale that only geoscientists can detect them.
But one thing is certain: fracking is inherently political. Some say it has diverted attention from the true solution to energy problems, which they see as renewable energy. And then there are those contamination issues, which can't just be swept under the carpet.
The couple in this video had their retirement home ruined, they claim, due to contamination of local water after a leak from a local fracking site. The danger debate will continue to run. One certainly doesn’t want hydrochloric acid in the water supply: that’s the stuff which eats into the bones!
In the UK, the Royal Academy of Engineering and the Royal Society support fracking, so long as there are robust monitoring systems in place.  Further afield, fracking has already hit South-East Asia, with China looking on closely - to the concern of those already worried about its water content.
Does fracking mean more jobs for engineers?
Quite simply: yes. The UK’s Institution of Mechanical Engineers has stated that jobs created as a result of fracking extend to chemical, mechanical, civil and structural engineering, as well as work for operations staff and geologists. It also said that, just as oil and gas experience learned in North Sea oil fields is now being deployed (for great fees!) across the world, skills learnt over the next decade in fracking could be sold abroad as other countries develop the energy production. 
So should Engineers thinking of Oil & Gas careers, who once upon a time might have thought of upping sticks to Riyadh or Abu Dhabi, now look to Lancashire or Texas as their best destinations? The National Society of Professional Engineers in the US has certainly talked up prospects for engineering careers.
Their report states: “Even before the unconventional oil and gas boom, petroleum engineers were in demand, says [Azra Tutuncu, professor of petroleum engineering for the Colorado School of Mines]. Now, with the need to drill a large number of wells to make unconventional sources profitable, the workforce needs have multiplied, she says.”
This is boom time, where exceptions are increasingly frequent: “For example, a Denver news station reported last May on a School of Mines graduate who transformed himself from high school dropout to petroleum engineer with a starting salary of more than $100,000 a year.”
Ultimately, for now, the industry is in its infancy. But it's already had a great impact - and Fracking looks set to become a permanent fixture in our vocabulary (if it wasn't already - but in a different way).


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