Low oil prices have pushed the fracking industry into a corner, as high drilling costs have sidelined rigs and caused oil production to decline month-over-month in the second half of 2015. Augmenting these troubles is the fact that the life of any given well may be limited, with fracking able to reach only about 10 to 40 percent of the original oil in the reservoir through primary and secondary recovery efforts, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. Consequently, the thirst for an effective method to enhance oil recovery is strong.
Plasma Pulse Technology is now making an entrance to the North American enhanced oil recovery market, and its developers claim that the technology is capable of reaching previously untapped oil reserves using a method that is cleaner and cheaper than current hydraulic fracking methods. The technique is able to initiate resonance of plasma waves within an oil reservoir that then enables oil to move with greater fluidity through smaller fractures in the earth. Proponents of plasma pulse technology say that it is able to tap into previously unreachable oil without the use of controversial chemicals or large volumes of water.
Novas Energy North America is the exclusive North American licensee of the technology. Since 2010, Novas Energy has been rolling out its Plasma Pulse Technology worldwide in China, Kazakhstan, Russia and the Middle East with more recent applications in the U.S. in Oklahoma, Louisiana, Kansas and Colorado. Next up is the vital Texas market, where the company is now signing contracts.
“Are we going to replace hydraulic fracking? We think we’ll be complementary,” Novas Energy North America President and CEO Ken Stankievech tells The Fuse. “But as the industry costs and the environmental pressures drive oil and gas production companies away from fracking, plasma pulse technology will have a significant piece of the EOR market.”
Non-invasive enhanced oil recovery
“How does an opera singer fracture a glass without hitting it? Why does the molecular structure of the glass break down? It is the unique resonance of the sound wave,” Stankievech says. “We take the basic hydrocarbon molecule and break the molecule chain so that it becomes smaller and flows through smaller openings—rather than trying to make bigger holes. That’s the secret to permeability improvement.”
Stankievech says that the plasma pulse technology differs from traditional fracking in that rather than breaking up the rock itself, this method changes the ability of the hydrocarbon to adhere to the rock.
“We take the basic hydrocarbon molecule and break the molecule chain so that it becomes smaller and flows through smaller openings—rather than trying to make bigger holes.
The plasma pulse operation is a much smaller, less invasive method of oil extraction than methods such as refracking. Using a 275-pound tool that can be moved by two workers by hand, the site employs a standard wire-line truck to put the tool to work. Furthermore, in spite of the seemingly large task of creating underground pulses that can have an impact on oil in rock, Stankievech says that the energy requirements of plasma pulse technology are quite small—largely thanks to the fact that the pulses themselves last only a nanosecond.
“It doesn’t require massive source power because it’s stored in high energy capacitors in the tool. We can run it off of a 110V power [outlet],” he says. “We use a 3500W generator which is about the same as the ones you see in RVs… It’s a very small footprint. No big rigs, no sand trucks, no pumping trucks. You can visualize how there’s a very limited amount of people and equipment on our job sites.”
Consequently, Stankievech points out that the cost differential between his technology hydraulic fracking jobs is substantial. On a vertical well, he estimates that plasma pulse technology is 75 percent cheaper than an equivalent hydraulic fracturing job. On a horizontal well, depending on the lateral leg length of the project, he says plasma pulse technology can be 90 percent cheaper than a traditional job. When it comes to capturing industry support for an environmentally-safe method of oil extraction, these cost differentials are the primary selling point—especially with the current oil price slump.
“Because we are cost-effective at $37 per barrel as it was [this week], we can keep our customers’ base rate up while being responsible for the environment and efficient in our recovery of oil and gas,” Stankievech says.
Not a substitute for fracking
But when evaluating the promise of the plasma pulse technology, Eric Smith, associate director of the Tulane Energy Institute tells The Fuse that it’s more valid to compare it to other enhanced oil recovery techniques than traditional hydraulic fracking. In fact, Smith does not see the technology as being particularly effective as a standalone option to oil extraction—instead, he sees it as requiring the existing infrastructure of a fracking site to do its job.
“It’s not the answer to the maiden’s prayer. It’s just a nice way to get a little more oil for a little less pollution. And that’s if it works on a repeatable basis,” says Smith.
Dr. Smith compares plasma pulse’s net benefit to companies that use water flooding to retrieve oil and then recycle the water on another project. He also noted that there are other companies using different technology to attempt to capture the same benefit: He cited Denbury Resources’ use of liquid CO2 in enhanced oil recovery as competitive and proven in that space.
When it comes to capturing industry support for an environmentally-safe method of oil extraction, these cost differentials are the primary selling point—especially with the current oil price slump.
“It might well be possible to use this plasma pulse technology to reenergize these existing fractures once they’ve been created. So instead of having to drill new wells every three years I can go back in and use the technology in the horizontal format and start production back up on these older wells that have peaked out and get an extra 15 to 20 percent. That would be a boon because that means there are fewer wells I have to drill,” says Smith. “I don’t see any problems with it… but you need someplace to start and you’re going to start with the wells that were conventionally fracked to begin with. Maybe they’re taking a well that would have played out in two-and-a-half to three years and extending its life to five years.”
While Smith primarily sees the environmental benefits of the plasma pulse technology coming from the fact that it would mean fewer wells need to be drilled, Stankievech is open about the fact that there is still a lot of room for the innovation to grow and adapt to the market.
“We’ve only done 400 wells worldwide. That does not make us a world expert,” Stankievech acknowledges. “We’ve learned a lot in the last 100 wells we’ve treated to best utilize what we have and what types of formations are best examples of improved production [using plasma pulse technology]. We like to believe that we have a lot to learn as we adapt to an industry that we can have a huge impact on. It’s a great space for us to be in when things are tough in the oil and gas industry.”