Commentary: Proppants: Are You Getting What You Pay For?

Q: What do oil companies and sand mines have in common?

A: Proppants and profits.

The following information describes the crippling inefficiencies of proppant quality control and how it affects the bottom line for sand mines and oil producers.

We’ve come a long way since 1866 when the first “exploding torpedo” was used downhole to fracture shale. That explosion was the “shot heard ‘round the world” for the fracking industry.

Today, modern fracking boasts some of the most technologically advanced, expertly engineered equipment being operated by some of the brightest minds in the world.

Also today, there is no accredited laboratory offering certified testing for the evaluation of proppants used in hydraulic fracturing. You read that right. If that isn’t surprising enough, there’s no one auditing that the manufacturer of proppants to ensure the end user (oil company) is receiving the quality of material they are paying for. Proppants are arguably the most critical component of the fracking process and there is no enforcement of quality.

Proppants were first introduced back in the 1940s when some dirty river sand was put down a well. Since then, we’ve tried just about everything we could think of. Glass beads, plastic pellets, walnut shells, there’s even rumors of some radioactive stuff from China still sitting on a dock somewhere.

ISO and API have written standards for the evaluation of quality for proppant. ASTM even got in on the standard action. Yet, no one is third-party checking proppant manufacturers to ensure the most basic principles of these standards are being followed.

Quite frankly, trusting a mine to provide data on the product you’ve purchased without occasionally checking into the quality of testing and subsequently the data is the very definition of “letting the fox guard the hen house.”

We’ve heard just about every excuse to explain away poor proppant performance and you probably have heard some too.

• “The proppant isn’t preforming as expected because it’s breaking up being pumped down hole.”
• “The product is really dusty because it’s getting broken during transport.”

Pure silica sand is the second hardest material on earth second only to diamonds. It has weathered millennia in the elements, undergone metamorphic stresses, rolled around in ancient seabeds and spent thousands of years being blown around expansive desert regions.

If the sand is being processed well and tested for standard compliance prior to leaving the mine site, it should arrive unaltered and in usable condition at your well site. Agitation and friction from transportation or mixing into a slick water slurry is simply not going to noticeably affect the overall quality.

Material Spec Laboratories has solutions to these concerns. Our laboratory is compliant to ISO 17025 and currently undergoing the process of accreditation. We offer third-party testing and audit services to the ISO and API standards.

Our data is certified and confidential. Our audit services are designed to provide oil producers official audit reports for the sand mines they purchase proppant from. The audits will meet the ISO 9001 requirements for risk management and annual audits of vendors providing products and or services to the oil company.

The future of innovation and advancement in proppant development begins with industry wide commitment to quality and standard adoption.

Penny Aschenbrenner is managing director, Material Spec Labs,, a consulting and testing laboratory serving the oil and gas industry.

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