Ultra-lightweight proppant maker drawing attention in shale oil

By Luke Geiver | September 19, 2017

Ron Coulter and his team at SUN, an advanced proppant technology and drilling fluid additive manufacturer that has been active for more than 50 years, are helping oil and gas operators fight gravity. For the past ten years, the SUN team has been fine-tuning an ultra-lightweight proppant that weighs less than traditional frack sand. The ultra-lightweight product provides better fracture matrix coverage than a sand-only mixture, improves long-term production curves and helps to maintain the fracture network—or prop—on the high side and far field of the fracture network that sand alone can’t typically reach or maintain over time.

“We took technology from our drilling beads and modified the thermal capabilities and reinforced them with nano-particles,” Coulter said. “Basically, we developed a bead that is highly stable from a temperature standpoint and has a high-pressure crush resistance.” The results have been undeniable, as Coulter said numerous operators have begun using the product to decrease production decline curves.

Although SUN is more recognized in the drilling fluid and additive sector, its proppant offerings are catching on among operators. “One of the things that is constant throughout all shale plays,” Coulter said, “is the proppant transport issue. Operators just can’t get proppant out far enough into the frack matrix. They are pumping more and more sand but in each individual-stage the sand can only go so far. Mother nature always wins. Gravity wins—the sand is going to settle.”

Because the ultralightweight proppant created by SUN weighs less than sand at 1.06 specific gravity, it is nearly buoyant in slickwater, the material can stay on the high side of a frack network. While most slickwater fracks with sand can cover only 40 percent of a reservoir network, a job that is supplemented with SUN’s proppant can reach the far field areas and prop up to 90 percent.

The purpose of the proppant is to flatten out the decline curve and keep a fracture network flowing for longer significantly increasing EUR. In most data tests, initial production rates were not impacted. The true results showed up after three to six months, Coulter said.

Over time, the proppant material does not crush like most sand and other proppant particles. Instead, the product deforms without breaking down, shifting from a spherical shape at the start to a disc oval shape after days and months of pressure are applied.

Because the proppant beads are a polymeric solid and aren’t coated, there is no dust associated with the particles and during transport the beads will not break down during loading or unloading.

Made in Louisiana at a production facility outside of New Orleans, SUN ships the product in 2,000 pound super sacks via flatbed truck. To date, operators in the Permian, Haynesville, Barnett, Mancos and Woodford shale plays have used the product. Although early versions of the ultra-lightweight proppant weren’t suitable for all shale plays, including the Bakken and Eagle Ford, the SUN team has enhanced its offerings and now, all of its products are suitable for nearly every shale play in the U.S. Originally, SUN started with a product that was suitable for 220 degree temperatures and 6,000 Psi. The newest product—OmniProp—is designed for 300 degree temperatures and more than 10,000 Psi of closure pressure, variables that are present in places like the Bakken or Eagle Ford.

The material is generally applied at 4 to 5 percent to the weight of the sand mixture being pumped. For every 100,000 pounds of sand per stage, an operator would only require roughly 4,000 to 5,000 pounds of the material.

While many peer-reviewed papers have been authored on the use and benefits of ultra-lightweight proppants, many times, operator and completion clients prefer to keep their data proprietary. When clients are asked if the ultra-lightweight proppant worked as it should have, Coulter said, “It worked they tell us. It worked really well and they want to buy more.”