What is Fracking Sand?

Hydraulic fracturing equipment at gas shale well site
Hydraulic fracturing equipment at gas shale well site. Photo (c) W.L. Sunshine

The term "fracking sand" refers to sand and similar small materials that are used during the process of hydraulic fracturing, a method for extracting underground natural gas from shale gas formations. Fracking sand is a “proppant” -- a material used to “prop” open the underground cracks from which natural gas is harvested during hydraulic fracturing. Proppants are are blasted under pressure into a shale gas well, along with large quantities of water and industrial fluids, to stimulate gas production.

 

What is Fracking Sand Made Of?

Typical proppants include actual sand crystals (such as from quartz/silica or sandstone), sand that has been industrially coated with resin (called resin-enhanced sand), ceramic crystals, or other suitable materials. Tiny ceramic or metallic beads are also used.

Most grains or beads of fracking sand are between 0.1 millimeter and 2 millimeters wide.

How Much Fracking Sand is Used?

 

Industry publications estimate that each shale gas well requires approximately 5 million pounds of sand or other proppant for the hydraulic fracturing process. The quantity of proppant can vary from as low as 2.5 million pounds to up to about 7 million pounds, depending on specific geological variations and characteristics of a shale formation. An estimated 95 billion pounds of fracking sand and ceramics were estimated to be pumped into the ground in the US just in 2014 alone, although demand will continue to rise and fall in line with changes to gas prices.

The sudden surge in demand for this specialized sand has been a boon to the three companies currently manufacturing it. And analysts project demand to go even higher.

What Are the Side-Effects of Fracking Sand?

According to government warnings, exposure to high levels of fine quartz fracking sand can lead to silicosis and other respiratory problems for workers.

The fracking industry acknowledges the hazards, but existing regulations on exposure levels are decades-old and did not account for the technological advances of fracking.

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