Biodegradable Plastics May Clean Up Fracking Pollution

A major emerging producer of bioplastics is teaming with a Houston energy company in an attempt to develop a more environmentally effective way to remove natural gas from underground rocks through hydraulic fracturing—a process that has been under fire for potential pollution of ground water.

It’s an interesting twist for a biodegradable plastic technology originally developed by Procter & Gamble and later spun off to a Georgia company called Meridian. A partner company called DaniMer Scientific is rapidly ramping up production capacity for the bioplastic called polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHA).

At the heart of the venture is a patented invention by Claude Cook, the chief technology officer of Houston-based EnerPol, LLC, an upstream oil and gas technology firm formed to commercialize the idea.

In  U.S. patent awarded in 2009, wells are hydraulically fractured  by injecting a degradable polymer phase as a fracturing fluid. “Composition and degree of polymerization of the degradable polymer and the selection of additives may be varied to adjust the viscosity, degradation time and other properties of the fracturing fluid,” states the patent.

The idea is that degradable plastic becomes a fluid to  fracture rock and carry “proppant”, a hard material such as ceramics that hold fractures open. Currently used cross-linked gels are difficult to recover after they have served their purpose.

The new approach is called novel fracture technology (NVT).

“The NFT has a drastically reduced chemical and equipment footprint compared to current fracturing methods,” says Dr. Steve Wann of DaniMer Scientific, Bainbridge, GA. The new approach costs less, making it practical to recover more natural gas, particularly from small wells.

In March 2011, DaniMer Scientific received a grant from the Research Partnership to Secure Energy for America, or RPSEA, to develop the NFT. DaniMer was selected as the RPSEA project leader under the small producer category, “Creating Fractures Past Damage More Effectively With Less Environmental Damage.” Texas A&M University and CSI Technologies Inc. are collaborating as senior partners in the small producer category.

EnerPol was formed to exclusively promote the use of DaniMer’s degradable polymer in the upstream oil and gas industry. EnerPol and DaniMer formed the marketing partnership based on the result of their participation in the  RPSEA initiative.

Blake Lindsey, president of DaniMer Scientific, said: “This exclusive representation by EnerPol of DaniMer’s products and services is especially rewarding since the oil and gas industry is a relatively new expansion for us.”

Danimer is now completing a pilot plant to produce its PHAs and expects to start construction on a production plant (200 million pounds per year) by the end of the year. The company expects to build three units that size in the next four years. One of the target markets is injection molding, although the film business is sure to develop faster.

Another ironic twist of the development is that the roof fell in earlier this year on the most well-known and advanced producers of PHAs—a company called Telles, that had been a joint venture of Archer-Daniels-Midland and a technology company called Metabolix. ADM pulled the plug on the JV when business was slow to develop and capital costs were growing. One problem was the high cost of the material—an average of about $2.50 per pound.

Danimer says its material is based on a different feedstock and uses a different process, and will cost much less.

About Doug Smock

Former Chief Editor at Plastics World and Senior Technical Editor Design News

Bioplastics, Green, North America, Oil Country

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