Could Wis. Frac Sand be Replaced?


Clay from North Dakota is being eyed as an alternative to Wisconsin frac sand for oil and gas drilling operations. However, geologists do not expect that to hurt Wisconsin’s frac sand industry.

North Dakota has been in the grips of an oil boom since 2006. This year, it is expected that 2,800 new wells will be drilled into the shale rock. That means those wells will be hungry for proppant, a hard round material used to hold open fractures in the rock, which allows oil and gas to escape. In Wisconsin, proppant is better known as frac sand, but it can also be made of specially designed ceramic beads.

Ed Murphy is North Dakota’s State Geologist. He says they are studying whether they can produce ceramic proppant domestically. “We’re evaluating two different clay stones in western North Dakota that may be used in the manufacturing of ceramic proppant or ceramic beads in the fracturing of oil.”

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Now most ceramic proppant comes from China or Russia. He says, if they find that the domestic clay has the right properties, they could make it locally instead. But could North Dakota ceramic proppant cut into Wisconsin’s growing frac sand industry? UW-Eau Claire Geology Department Chair Kent Severson says no. “Ceramic proppants today are extremely expensive. From what I’ve heard they cost between two and three times more than just raw sand.”

Also, Severson says ceramic proppants are used more for drilling at extreme depths because it is harder than natural sand. “Our sands are so good that they work at the normal depths where they’re going to be extracting the oil and natural gas, and therefore there’s a better cost benefit to using the Wisconsin sand at those kinds of intermediate depths.”

The North Dakota study into ceramic proppant is expected to wrap up this fall.