Fueled by Physics

Fracking produces cracks in rock that make oil and gas easier to extract. Credit: Gary Hincks

As global demand for energy rises and environmental concerns over fossil fuels increase, many experts see the need to transition to a new mix of energy sources. Michael Marder, a physics professor, says one approach to maintaining our energy intensive way of life would be to more efficiently recover fossil fuels. He notes that oil and gas producers would be helped by a more thorough understanding of what’s physically happening thousands of feet below the surface when they perform certain routine techniques.

Hydraulic fracturing, a process that has unlocked massive reservoirs of shale oil and gas previously thought inaccessible, is one of these techniques. The typical fracked well produces only 10 to 20 percent of apparently available hydrocarbons.

Marder realized that natural gas production in fracked wells decays over time in a way that ideas from localization theory help describe. Originally developed to explain how electrons move through random materials at low temperature, the theory proved helpful in a collaboration between Marder and UT Austin geoscientists and engineers that allowed them to forecast future U.S. shale gas production.

Now he and colleagues are developing a 3-D model that aims to explain how fracked wells can produce more hydrocarbons. 

Marder and UT Austin petroleum engineers are also looking at making other conventional methods for oil and gas recovery more efficient. They are modeling how water, used to try to push more hydrocarbons out of drilled wells, interacts with oil and with porous rock. The hope is that it will lead to better understanding of the conditions necessary for optimal production from wells.