An Brief Irreverent History of Oil Well Torpedoes and Evolution of the Hose Job (hydraulic fracking)
After the Civil War
It probably seemed pretty obvious to Col. A.L. Roberts, an artillery officer, how to stimulate an oil well: blow it up. The “Roberts Torpedo,” (1866, US Patent 59,936) method is to fill it up with nitroglycerine, lower the torpedo down the well, drop a steel rod down the well bore and run... Woohoo, big fire balls in the night sky! Since nitroglycerine had the bad reputation of going boom way too easily, well shooters were in short supply and paid quite nicely. So, after a day’s work, a good dinner, some drinks, maybe moonlighting wasn’t such a good idea. It was so fun and lucrative that the well shooters started the original expression: “moonlighting.”
Then hydraulic fracturing started to spoil that kind of fun, because it was sold as a little safer…
On March 17, 1949, a team of petroleum production experts performed the first commercial application of hydraulic fracturing near Duncan, Oklahoma. Later that same day, Halliburton and Stanolind company personnel successfully fractured another oil well near Holliday, Texas. There was so much money to be made selling, water, sand, surfactants, and even some snake-oil additives that could “improve” the fracking water. Nitroglycerine distribution became restricted with the last plant supplying the industry, exploding in 1990. An incestuous industry even then, big service companies largely control the oil stimulation business today. This stems from the large capital required for pumper trucks, sand, pipes and crews, eliminating the little guy well shooter.
Back to the Future
So time passes and finally, someone must have thought: “using all of these trucks and water hoses to break rock a mile underground seems kind of stupid.”
Then, at US Department of Energy’s Sandia National Laboratory, Richard A. Schmidt’s team proved that propellants were indeed better than high explosives for producing complex high surface fracture to stimulating oil wells. Surplus solid rocket motors were used for testing and developing the original rock physics models underground at the Nevada Test Site. Their breakthrough paper (SPE/DOE 8934) demonstrated that the burning rate mattered, and explosives burned too fast (supersonic) for effective fracturing.
This also led to the development of the StimGunTM and StimTubeTM by the legendary Haney Brothers: Bob and Joe. They developed the robust potassium perchlorate propellants still used in their guns today. Their approach was to degrade the performance of perchlorates by mixing them with excess epoxy binder for a tough, castable propellant that would only burn at high pressure downhole. Their early work with Hobart mixers and working out cure rates was something never expected from such a small company. Their successful StimGun Group has continued to manage and tightly control their gun and propellant technology, having conducting high quality stimulations on thousands of wells.
How ironic it is that even the guys that moved the industry away from explosives, ended up contaminating their own city’s wells with rocket propellant. With the hazards unknown at the time, back in 60 and 70’s the Defense Department contracted companies to wash out perchlorate propellants from old rocket motors. Unfortunately, those perchlorates found their way into the groundwater and drinking water wells, and are still a threat today.
Schmidt eventually left Sandia National Lab and since 1994, his GasGunTM tools has also shot thousands of wells. However, the GasGunTM is different and uses advanced double-base gun propellant pellets that typically don’t contain toxic perchlorates. The gun propellant pellets simplify logistics and allows field loading of tools. He designed his guns around the ballistics that could be achieved with neutral burning grain design from canon military rounds. GasGun Inc. continues to innovate and effectively compete in the industry with their KrakenTM tool that also incorporates shaped charges with the propellant charge. Schmidt continues to be one of the best evangelists for propellant fracking and has provided us a wealth of technical information to the community.
yesterday’s technology, tomorrow!
The aerospace industry even makes the oil industry look fast and innovative. For example, perchlorate rocket propellants have been around since 1942 when the Caltech’s Jack Parson’s invented the JATO pack for aircraft using perchlorate and asphalt. Also from Caltech, Charles Bartley figured out how to use rubber as a binder and add aluminum for more energy. While there has been continuing development, the technology the remains about the same today. Why? Once a weapon system rocket motor is made, it doesn’t have to change for twenty or more years. The same was even more true for the space industry, unless someone had been using it for twenty years, no one want to us it in space.
However, recently it was companies SpaceX, BlueOrigin, RocketLab, Skybox and Planet Labs that proved how dysfunctional NASA and big old space industry had become.
By 2014, even old aerospace companies realized that rocket propellants were highly competitive with certain hydraulic fracturing niches, entering the industry and testifying before congress on the growth potential. So too the oil industry was recognizing the niche market, with many patents filed in the 2000’s. However, massive environmental damage had already been caused by perchlorate groundwater contamination.
As an endocrine system toxin, perchlorates are both a danger to touch or inhale during manufacturing. In drinking water, it is extremely dangerous to fetus brain development during pregnancy.
The manufacturing and use of perchlorates has been responsible for some of the largest ongoing groundwater remediation projects in the United States, like Henderson NV, Folsom, CA and dozens of others. Accidental explosions like the PEPCON plant outside of Las Vegas shows how hazardous manufacturing can be too.
The dangerous explosive dust, high shear mixing, cast and cure manufacturing perchlorate solid propellants is all unnecessary with DSSP’s ammonium nitrate based liquid propellants.