FRACKING Revisited: What lies ahead (or beneath) and the idea of a FRACKING CHALLENGE

Last summer, precisely six month ago, I wrote a blog article on hydraulic fracturing at the height one of the contentious periods between the industry and the public about this issue.  The adversarial relationship between the two groups have not abated since, maybe just dampened for now by the piles of snow on the ground, out of sight and partially out of mind.  This is sure to erupt once again once spring thaw arrives.

Anything good happened in the last 6 months?  Not a thing.  Really!  The same issues remain.  The politics and the drama you can read elsewhere.  The industry continues, bowing to some regulatory pressures in some cases, moratoriums, public discussions, but the business goes on.  Even politicians are divided, some trying to sit on the fence, some seemingly concerned, but wary of the economic repercussions of bringing the industry to a halt.  Both sides have strong convictions and even that is not worth a story line here.

Practically everything humans do, even those done with the best of intentions, carries unintended and often unforeseen consequences.  Even a simple new design for baby cribs get recalled for flaws found only when thousands began using it and accidental deaths occur.  The same happens to new drugs that came into the market, backed with world class research and extensive clinical trials on thousands of patients, only to be withdrawn later because, when millions use it, then other medical problems emerge.  When the spraying of the pesticide, DDT, to kill mosquitoes was banned for the sake of protecting other non-target species from being decimated, millions of Africans died of malaria instead.  Even for the best and noblest of reasons, things happen we never planned for.

I also think that it is an uphill battle for the industry to change public perception that fracking is good for the country and good for the environment at the same time.  Even a billion dollar public relations campaign will not change that. Not that I would want PR executives and lawyers to lose out in this process. Somebody has to spend for the Audis, the Mercedes Benzes, Lear jets and box seats at the Superbowl.  They are part of how our economy flows.

Getting our oil from elsewhere overseas carries an environmental price too.  Do you think it’s OK for some countries to have their aquifers destroyed to extract oil to ship to America, but not OK if ours are damaged?   Does the environmental degradation of the Niger Delta, the deserts of Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates or Iraq less important?  There are living things there too besides people.  These organisms may not look so cute or cuddly, but deserve the right to exist.  How about marine life in the Gulf of Mexico and the new gas fields being discovered along the continental shelves and out in the open oceans?  Pollution in China eventually reaches the United States; just takes time to get here.  The same is true that desert storms in Africa bring polluted particles to Europe and beyond.  We live in one Earth, interconnected in so many ways that even pollution is a shared experience for all.  Our Fracking issue is a mirror of what is happening throughout the world and how we deal with this may set the framework on how the rest of world can manage the same issues. 

Human beings are great problem-solving species. That is why we are dominant on Earth. We are also a great problem-making species too—but we have the ability to correct our mistakes.  This Fracking problem is no different.  The Halliburton technology was a ground breaking (pardon the pun) in extracting shale oil.  No one cared about it for decades until when the boom came and thousands of wells start springing up all over the place.  And, just like the crib story, things happen.  Is the contamination problem ubiquitous throughout the industry or is it just a few bad apples spoiling the rest of the bushel?  I can’t say for sure.  Can the technology be improved so that even some bad apples can’t ruin things for the rest of us?  I am sure it can.  This is not rocket science.  We are not curing cancer or growing new hair on balding scalps.  This is engineering, chemistry and geology.  Americans are good at these.  We can certainly make a better mouse trap.  And, we should.

The answer to this problem will not come from tweaking the fracking fluid formula a little or carting them offsite and hoping for the best; and it is not lambasting the industry, yet clamoring for cheap oil and gas at the same time.  The answer lies in collectively finding a better way, another method and an improved ‘out-of-box’ idea that can change the scenario in the years to come.

Yes, there have been some innovations in the past 6 months.  But they are not ground breaking.  They won’t change much how things are done.  Even our work at Poseidon Sciences on developing covalently bound biocides that never leave the ceramic beads (proppants) to keep the fractured shale from clogging with bacterial slime is just part of the incremental step toward eco-safety.  Perhaps the newest idea I have seen from industry is the use of LPG technology (liquid petroleum gas, not propane as one would automatically think, but a mixture of petroleum and natural gas in liquid state) by GASFRAC Energy Services Inc. (Alberta, Canada) instead of the conventional hydraulic fracturing fluid.  The company claims that the new process avoids the contaminations normally associated with fracking fluids since all of the LPG are recovered after the fracture stimulation.  Only time will tell if there might be unintended consequences here too, but certainly it is a step in the right direction, if all goes well.

When it is energy and the environment, time seems to be of the essence.  We don’t always have the luxury to wait.  As I think through these issues tonight, how does one create a ‘crash program’ to solve this issue?  Certainly waiting for the universities to come up with solutions will take time and money too.  To get a grant (assuming there is money appropriated for it) takes at least a year, even if one’s idea is so great and if you are in the right academic environment to get it.   An entrepreneur with a great idea?  Not likely because this project will cost a bundle of personal wealth even to try a simple idea and most entrepreneurs, like yours truly, are always hard up for cash to chase new ideas.  Government?  I think everyone will agree that getting Congress involved is a guarantee of long, bickering rounds of partisanship.  They have to argue about it until they reach consensus and until everyone involved looks great on TV.   By the time it gets voted, if at all, the enthusiasm would have died of old age.  The Industry?  Oil men are great adventurers but hardly guys that do well when put together in the same room, especially if they have to share a single vintage bottle of Bourbon (The standard perception would be: “It works. Why fix when it is not broken—just tweak it a bit and keep the regulators happy.”).  Bill Gates is preoccupied with his obsession with malaria, TB and something else in foreign lands. And Oprah is just way too busy right now.

How to stimulate innovation?

In his State of the Union speech last week, President Obama focused on the need for innovation in America and the need to correct America’s innovation deficit.  With the economy in the toilet right now, we better find a better way to stimulate innovation than the traditional ways it has always been done.   

So, it dawned on me.  (It would have happened earlier if I had that bottle of Bourbon).  We need a FRACKING CHALLENGE.  The same way that my friend, Mike – Dr. Michael A. Champ — has been advocating for A DESALINATION CHALLENGE to develop a low cost, advanced desalination technology to convert seawater into freshwater. Make everyone chip in.  Get Mike to create a combination of Gates Foundation Grand Challenge and a FRACKING X-PRIZE that has an independent, third party judging group with the right expertise to develop the rules, judge the challenge and award cash prizes. 

I always thought that prizes to stimulate innovation is a modern invention until Mike pointed out that it dated as far back as 1714.  Back then, determining the accurate position of a British ship at sea was indeed a challenge and they needed a practical means of determining longitude.  That year, the British Parliament enacted the famed Longitude Act and offered the highest bounty – a prize equal to a king’s ransom (several million dollars in today’s currency) for a “Practicable and Useful” means of determining longitude.   English clock maker John Harrison, a mechanical genius who pioneered the science of portable precision time keeping, invented a clock that would carry the true time from the home port to any remote part of the world, which was considered the greatest scientific problem of his time in measuring longitude.  Harrison was our first true X-Prize winner in recorded history at least.  I would not be surprised if later archaeologists dig up an Egyptian tablet from 5,000 years ago announcing a competition for best design of an above ground pharaoh’s tomb.

How to do it?  Set up a nonprofit foundation with a board comprising industry, academia, environmental groups and government.  Then ask each company involved in hydraulic fracturing to support the program with 1 % of their gross sales over a 3-year period, complemented with the 100% tax free incentive from the government for that funding.  Considering that the projected market value of shale oil by 2015 is estimated at US $12 billion, this will yield at least US $300 million– $100 million to support promising ideas for validation at Phase I; another $100 for field demonstration of those that have real world practical applications on Phase II; and $100 million for the Prize on Phase III.  Any company that pitches in gets to use the technology royalty-free; the rest that didn’t shall pay a price through the nose to use the technology developed from this Challenge.

$300 million is a lot less than the fracking industry likely spends just paying lawyers and PR companies in a single year.  Seems a lot of bucks, doesn’t it?   This project is definitely not simple or cheap.  But, if you look at it from other perspectives, it surely isn’t that much.  The last Megalotto that I (and other friends) sunk $10 for was worth $375 Million!  I did not win even a buck either, but I was willing to fork over $10 for the infinitesimal chance of winning.

Or, let’s assume the industry, according to environmentalists, is just a bunch of lowly ‘pond scum’; only in it for what they can get out of it (I tend to think not).  Then, how about just $1 contribution from every US resident — citizens, legal aliens, illegal aliens and out-of-this-world aliens?  That’s even less than the price of one bottled water.  Or, for a family of 4, just skip one Starbucks coffee for one day this year!  We can make $300 million without government-industry support.

Or better yet, run the fundraising from a special Megalotto for each of the states affected by fracking.  “Hey. You never know,” as the NY lotto advertising says. 

$1 per person in the US is a cheap price for saving our water resources and keep our own oil and gas flowing, isn’t it?  Buy less foreign oil; Keep our men and women in the military from harms way for the sake of protecting our overseas strategic interests in oil.

How about it?  Anyone up to this FRACKING CHALLENGE?

Jonathan R. Matias

Chief Science Officer

Poseidon Sciences Group

www.poseidonsciences.com

Suggested reading:

http://www.poseidonsciences.com/Covalently_bonded_biocides_selenium_environmentally_friendly_hydraulic_fracturing_Poseidon_Sciences.pdf

http://www.poseidonsciences.com/Selenium_environmentally_friendly_biocides-Hydraulic_Fracturing_Poseidon_Sciences.pdf 

http://gasfrac.com/fracturing_process.aspx

Suggested reading on the use of a prize to stimulate innovation:  

Adler, Jonathan. Editorial on Innovation. Prizes are more effective at spurring innovation than federal subsidies.    http://energy.nationalreview.com/post/?q=YTQwNzY2ZGRhMGM5MGQ0NjdmMTlhNjVjZDdkZTY4NjE=

Congressional Research Service, Deborah D. Stine. 2009. Federally Funded Innovation Inducement Prizes.  CRS 7-5700. www.crs.gov.

Diamandis,  P.H. 2007.  X Prize Foundation.  2007.  Offer a prize if you want innovation. Reno Gazette Journal. www.RGJ.com August 13, 2007. 

Debelak, D.  2007. Winning a Contest Can Catapult Your Invention into the Mainstreamwww.entrepreneur.com

McKinsey & Company. 2009.  And the Winner is…Capturing the Promise of Philanthropic Prizes.  124p. http://www.mckinsey.com/clientservice/socialsector/And_the_winner_is.pdf

The Economist. 2010.  Offering a cash prize to encourage innovation is all the rage. Sometimes it works rather well.  http://www.economist.com/node/16740639?story_id=16740639.

Mathematical models of emerging and collapsing societies. From Asimov’s fictional futuristic tale to the real science of Gavrilets’ numerical simulations

I was preoccupied in this last three weeks of January about the bigger picture of how life and work might look like in 2011, mostly playing catch-up with work issues since a lot of things just got placed in my ‘waiting basket’ during the Holidays.  I was also bothered by little things; especially about finding my old collection of science fiction books by Isaac Asimov called The Foundation Series, the first trilogy printed in the 1950’s.  My kids typically classify my preoccupation with things and events of that era as the ‘dinosaur years.’  With a plethora of science fiction paperback novels and special effects movies in the last 10 years alone, why should I be interested in a similar genre written 60 years ago?  Not sure what the answers is.  Perhaps by the time I finish this tale of science fiction and real science we will both have the answer to this question.  

As I rummage hopelessly through my ‘library’ (In my case defined as rooms full of books, manuscripts, articles and magazines scattered on the floor, on bookshelves and on top of tables, along with the smattering of half a dozen partially filled and almost empty cups of coffee for ‘decorative’ purposes), I decided to just glance over to my laptop to check out today’s smorgasbord of science news in scienceblog.com.  And there it was!  Not Asimov’s books, but an article published recently by Sergey Gavrilets (National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis) and co-authored by David G. Anderson (University of Tennessee-Knoxville) and Peter Turchin (University of Connecticut).  The article “Cycling in the complexity of early societies” was among the first in the brand new journal called Cliodynamics: The Journal of Theoretical and Mathematical History, “the first academic journal to research from the emerging science of theoretical history and mathematics.”    

That’s nice.  But, where’s the connection to Asimov’s books?  Let me tell you first what this article is all about as best as I can figure it out.  I really am not a fan of anything mathematical, especially when it comes to theoretical population biology on which I still harbor occasional nightmares from grad school days.  The start of the population biology class usually triggers also the start of  my usual fantasy of being somewhere else—on a tropical beach, sipping margarita under a coconut tree, surrounded by native women wearing sarong– that is, when I wasn’t dozing off. 

Gavrilets developed a mathematical model, using hundreds of years of human historical data, to predict the rise and fall of complex societies.  Through numerical simulations that take into account parameters such the size of the state, political power, length of rule, economic variables, etc, his team was able to explain the dynamic processes that cause kingdoms, states and empires to collapse on the scale of decades and centuries.  

Gavrilets concludes: 

Over the past several decades mathematical methods and techniques have become very important in life sciences and social sciences. In particular, mathematical and computational modelings are powerful tools for better understanding the origins of new species and of general rules of biological diversification. Agent-based simulation modeling efforts like those advanced here offer fruitful avenues for future research on general patterns in historical dynamics and on the emergence and diversification of human societies. 

Isaac Asimov

Much has been written about Asimov and thought I just give you a snapshot of his life and his works as a preamble to the next part of this narrative.  Isaac Asimov (family name derived from the Russian word meaning winter grain—from his great grandfather’s occupation) was born in Russia as Isaak Yudovich Ozimov of Jewish ancestry, immigrated to United  States at the age of 3 and later became one of the most prolific American writers of all time, with over 500 books  to his credit.  Not knowing the exact date of his birth due to the uncertainty between the Gregorian and Jewish calendars of the time, he simply decided that his birthday ought to be January 2, 1920.  He would have been 90 years of age this month.  

Young Isaac taught himself to read English at the age of five, taking advantage of the “pulp” science fiction magazines sold in his father’s candy store in Brooklyn, NY. (Pulp  magazines, pulp fiction or simply ‘the pulps’ refer to cheap fiction magazines printed between 1896 through the 1950’s on cheap, ragged, untrimmed wood pulp paper.  It was famous for being cheaper than the magazines called ‘glossies.’  Pulps mostly feature lurid, sensational, exploitive stories with colorful page covers.  Comic book superheroes are considered descendants of pulp fiction).  Though his father disapproved of pulp science fiction magazines, Isaac managed to convince him otherwise since he reasoned that the word ‘science’ was there and therefore must be ‘educational.’  By 11, he was already writing his own stories and by the age of 19 selling stories to science fiction magazines himself.  Educated in the New York public school system, he eventually received his PhD in biochemistry from Columbia University in 1948.  Along with Arthur C. Clarke and Robert A. Heinlein, Isaac Asimov is considered the master of science fiction during his life time. 

The words robotics, positronic (an entirely fictional technology) and psychohistory (also fictional) are all attributed to Asimov from his novels.  Robotics and positronic continues to be part of American lexicon, most notably in movies, such as Star Trek; The Next Generation that featured androids with positronic brains.   His robot stories which became part of the novel I, Robot in 1950 and  made into a film in 2004 with Will Smith, described a set of ethical rules for robots (The Three Laws of Robotics) leading to other stories, such as the Bicentennial Man, also made into a movie starring Robin Williams.  He became a friend and science advisor to Gene Roddenberry on many Star Trek projects. 

The Foundation Series 

Though Asimov had written history books (about the Greeks, Romans, Babylonians and Egyptians), mystery stories (in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine), scholarly biblical works and countless science fiction stories, he is singularly remembered for his Foundation SeriesThis is where Gavrilets and Asimov converged in this narrative.  The Foundation Series comprises seven science fiction novels, the first three, the Foundation Trilogy (Foundation, Foundation and Empire and Second Foundation) are considered the most famous and written in the early 1950’s.  It wasn’t until 30 years later that he began writing again the 4th entry in the saga.  

The fictional story goes like this: 

The setting is the universe thousands of years in the future when mankind, with a population in the quadrillions and ruled by a Galactic Empire, occupied millions of star systems in the galaxy.  A mathematician named Hari Seldon developed a mathematical simulation, called psychohistory.  The principle, based on the laws of mass action, numerically calculates the behavior of a quadrillion inhabitants (anything less is inaccurate) that enabled Seldon to predict the imminent collapse of the Empire.  It also predicted that the collapse will follow a period of 30,000 years of descent to anarchy and barbarism, akin to the Dark Ages of medieval Europe, before the rise of the Second Empire.  His mathematical modeling also predicted an alternative option with the Dark Ages lasting only 1,000 years, if a source of knowledge can fill the vacuum left by the collapse of the Empire and the technologies that created it.  The Seldon Plan, which attempts to minimize the period of the Dark Ages, was to establish two cryptic societies, one at each opposite end of the Milky Way galaxy, populated by scientists and technocrats, called the Foundations, ready to step in as the Empire collapses.  The Galactic Emperor found out about psychohistory and the adventures began… 

Gavrilet and Asimov’s Hari Seldon 

A science fiction writer conceives the idea from basic facts and then extrapolates from there, creating fantasies and visions not always possible in a real scientific discipline. 

There are times when the figment of a fiction writer’s fantasy decades before becomes a common reality now.   Let’s take the case of the Star Trek television series of the late 60’s.  The series described the interstellar adventures of Capt. Kirk, Mr. Spock, Dr. McCoy, a multi-ethnic crew (first time such an attempt was made in the racially charged era of the 1960’s) and the occasional alien crew member or guests in galactic starship Enterprise of the 22nd century.  This unique TV series created the biggest ever fan base of science fiction enthusiasts (and that includes yours truly).  Even NASA named its first space shuttle Enterprise in honor of the fictional galactic starship. Though the original airing of the TV series was not accessible to me then (I happened to be in an island in another continent at the time; and yes, no American TV), coming to America, I did grow up on the TV reruns of Gene Roddenberry’s vision of the future, many of which has come to fruition in my life time:  mobile phones, pda, tablet PC, hand held diagnostic instruments (Mr. Spock’s tricorder), MRI (Dr. Spock’s diagnostic table), the jet injector for drugs (Dr. McCoy’s hypospray), the universal translator (now the voice recognition and language software), the telepresence device (now the video conferencing) and the phaser set to stun (now the Taser gun to immobilize), just to name a few.  Even the truly far out concepts of the Romulan cloaking device, the transporter beam, the tractor beam, the energy shield to protect the starship are being researched seriously.  New results from military and university research are paving the way for new materials to distort light to hide objects in plain sight, new methods  transport small items by fragmenting molecules and electronic shield/counter strike weapons that destroy incoming projectiles, now featured in the more recent Israeli design for combat tanks. 

Isaac Asimov’s fiction of a mathematician predicting the collapse of the Galactic Empire made a good the story.  It was purely from the fantasies of Asimov’s fertile mind.  But like in Star Trek, some fantasies eventually turn to something real—sometimes.  Gavrilets’ numerical simulations do seem to show that such predictions can be possible.  His paper certainly is an elegant piece of scientific work and will surely be controversial.  Whether it can predict the collapse of empires, perhaps Gavrilets, like Hari Seldon, have to wait before mankind reach the quadrillion mark in the far flung reaches of a future galactic empire. 

I wonder if Sergey Gavrilets ever read the Foundation trilogy.  Had he been alive today, Isaac Asimov would have been ecstatic to read Gavrilets’ paper.  Perhaps, I should ask Gavrilets about the Foundation novels if we ever meet one day.   Not to talk about galactic futures, but about the recent collapses of dictatorial states and when future ones might be expected to follow the same path. 

I think science fiction writers and mathematicians in sociobiology have one thing in common – they seem to chase after futuristic events. 

I am sure Isaac Asimov would agree.

Jonathan R. Matias

Chief Science Officer

Poseidon Sciences Group

www.poseidonsciences.com

PS

Still looking for Asimov’s books !

SUGGESTED READING

http://scienceblog.com/41939/mathematical-model-explains-how-complex-societies-emerge-collapse/

Gavrilets S, Anderson D, Turchin P. 2010. Cycling in the complexity of early societies. Cliodynamics: The Journal of Theoretical and Mathematical History. 1:1

http://escholarship.org/uc/irows_cliodynamics?volume=1;issue=1

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Foundation_series

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Isaac_Asimov

http://www.tiem.utk.edu/~gavrila/Research.htm

http://electronics.howstuffworks.com/10-star-trek-technologies10.htm