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Hydraulic fracturing (called “frac jobs” or “frac’ing” in the industry, with the spelling “fracking” being common in media reports) is a process that results in the creation of fractures in rocks. The most important industrial use is in stimulating oil and gas wells, where hydraulic fracturing has been used for over 60 years in more than one million wells. The fracturing is done from a wellbore drilled into reservoir rock formations to increase the rate and ultimate recovery of oil and natural gas.
Hydraulic fractures may be natural or man-made and are extended by internal fluid pressure which opens the fracture and causes it to extend through the rock. Natural hydraulic fractures include volcanic dikes, sills and fracturing by ice as in frost weathering. Man-made fluid-driven fractures are formed at depth in a borehole and extend into targeted formations. The fracture width is typically maintained after the injection by introducing a proppant into the injected fluid. Proppant is a material, such as grains of sand, ceramic, or other particulates, that prevent the fractures from closing when the injection is stopped.
The technique of hydraulic fracturing is used to increase or restore the rate at which fluids, such as oil, gas or water, can be produced from a reservoir, including unconventional reservoirs such as shale rock or coal beds. Hydraulic fracturing enables the production of natural gas and oil from rock formations deep below the earth’s surface (generally 5,000-20,000 feet). At such depth, there may not be sufficient porosity and permeability to allow natural gas and oil to flow from the rock into the wellbore at economic rates. For example, creating conductive fractures in the rock is essential to produce gas from shale reservoirs because of the extremely low natural permeability of shale, (which is measured in the microdarcy to nanodarcy range). The fracture provides a conductive path connecting a larger area of the reservoir to the well, thereby increasing the area from which natural gas and liquids can be recovered from the targeted formation.
Hydraulic fracturing for stimulation of oil and natural gas wells was first used in the United States in 1947. It was first used commercially in 1949, and because of its success in increasing production from oil wells was quickly adopted, and is now used worldwide in tens of thousands of oil and natural gas wells annually. The first industrial use of hydraulic fracturing was as early as 1903, according to T.L. Watson. Before that date, hydraulic fracturing was used at Mt. Airy Quarry, near Mt Airy, North Carolina where it was (and still is) used to separate granite blocks from bedrock.
Volcanic dikes and sills are examples of natural hydraulic fractures. Hydraulic fracturing incorporates results from the disciplines of fracture mechanics, fluid mechanics, solid mechanics, and porous medium flow.