Under some of the most beautiful parts of rural New York State in the pre-Jurassic era formation called the Marcellus Shale is an unimaginable fortune in natural gas. Getting that gas to market has become an obsession of Wall Street and the biggest gas drilling companies in the world. In this gas rush, New York is fast becoming a geological science experiment that many experts fear will have profound, dire environmental and health consequences. The drilling companies use a witch’s brew of water, pressure and chemicals to force the gas from the shale. It is the secrecy of what is in that brew that has New Yorkers worried and many suspicious. Even the New York Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) has not yet identified all of the compounds in products proposed for use in fracturing shale.

Now, the world’s largest drilling fluid supplier is licensing new technologies that have never before been used on a large scale as they work to develop more effective ways to extract natural gas. These new fluids will include nanotechnology, according to the largest supplier of drilling fluids in the world. This potential application of nanotechnology, a branch of science involving the technological manipulation of particles about one-tenth the size of a human cell, has not been thoroughly vetted and tested in natural gas wells.

“What we have done in our group, for example, is to develop nanoparticles that can be used with water-based fluids so that you can put them in water and drill with them,” said Mukul Sharma, a professor in the Department of Petroleum and Geosystems Engineering at University of Texas. “And the advantage of that is that these nanoparticles have the same dimensions as the pores in the shales, so they tend to plug these pores.”

Gas shale development requires the use of oil-based drilling fluids because water-based drilling fluids interact with the shale causing it to expand or contract leading to instability of the wellbore, according to Sharma. Oil-based drilling fluids are expensive and can be harmful to the environment. New developments may reduce the need for oil-based drilling fluids. Sharma and his colleagues applied silica particles about five to 40 nanometers in diameter to different kinds of water-based drilling fluids to plug pores in shale samples reducing water invasion. He and his colleagues filed patents for the use of nanoparticles in drilling fluids earlier this year.

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