Swellable Proppants for In-Situ Well Stimulation Last Reviewed November 2016


The goal of this project is to develop an “engineered ice” or “rusting rebar” proppant that can deliver large localized forces to fracture rock under high constraining forces, similar to how water freezing or rebar rusting cause fracture in rock and concrete structures. The overall objective of this project is to develop a new class of structural expandable proppant particles that can deliver a pumpable formulation that is capable of exerting considerable force to open and extend fracture networks for oil and gas, mineral, and geothermal energy extraction from deep hardrock and tight formations.

Terves, Inc., Euclid, OH 44117

The exploitation and recovery of gas from hydraulically-fractured unconventional formations, such as shale, are changing the United States (U.S.) from a net energy importer to a potential exporter. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, Office of Energy Analysis, over 33 million barrels of oil and 1,480 trillion cubic feet of natural gas are technically recoverable from shale and tight formations in the U.S. Currently, oil recovery rates are less than 7% on average, while gas recovery rates remain around 25% of total recoverable reserves. Furthermore, current hydraulic stimulation processes utilize large amounts of water, which must be treated and disposed of during flowback.

This Phase I & Phase II SBIR continues to develop an engineered stimulation fluid alternative that can provide the controlled application of force independent of flowrate to widen and extend fracture networks, and to prevent fine fracture closure after removal of pumping pressure. This expandable proppant is expected to have the ability to stimulate the reservoir with higher degrees of control and reduced water usage, and to address fine fractures that are currently unable to be efficiently propped.  These “engineered response” proppants are an initial application of engineered pumpable materials - other applications include local chemical delivery, tracer release, and thermal energy delivery. Key technologies being leveraged and further developed for expandable proppant development include; controlled release coatings for proppants (to control exposure to the formation fluids), reactive nanoparticle fabrication and dispersion, scalable nanocomposite bead production, proppant transport CFD simulation, and proppant conductivity advanced test methods.


The project team will characterize the underlying kinetics and effectiveness of the expandable proppant chemistries and determine the engineering basis for their use, using both experimentation and simulation tools. Methods for controlling the amount of force delivered, and the placement and timing of the force delivery, as well as long term stability (creep, dissolution, etc.) will be developed leading to use protocols for different formation types. The function and resultant fracture conductivity after stimulation and formation closure during fluid removal will be measured using API reference methods as a function of formation type (carbonate, shale, sandstone), as well as placement methodology (i.e., pillar, less than monolayer, multilayer).


Using expandable proppants, increased fracture conductivity is expected through the delivery of smaller, lighter proppant particles that swell after placement to overcome embedment and fracture closure stresses to open, extend, and maintain complex fracture networks beyond the near-bore area. Lighter and smaller proppants can be delivered with lower fluid pumping rates and viscosities, and expandable proppants can subsequently deliver forces exceeding the 2500 psig demonstrated during Phase I while retaining high permeability. The expandable proppants can be pumped into a fracture network and then, in a controlled manner based on changes in temperature, time, or formation chemistry, can deliver additional force that opens and extends the crack network, in a manner similar to steel rebar rusting and fracturing concrete.

The capability to have a pumpable material that can be triggered to provide the controlled application of high forces while remaining highly permeable is a potentially enabling fracture technology for resource extraction. When applied to oil and gas stimulation operations, the ability to expand existing fracture networks without the use of large volumes of water or other fluids can greatly reduce costs and environmental impacts. The proposed controlled application of force through in-situ reaction with formation fluids after placement will provide a new tool for reservoir engineers to utilize in enhancing the economics of extracting natural resources.  The practical and cost-effective ability of controlled application of localized force offers a new engineering tool to control the development of fracture networks, including guiding the direction, extent, width, and longevity of the fractures, and can be used to control residual stresses in formations.

Accomplishments (most recent listed first)

  • Terves, Inc., formulated multiple nanocomposite proppants and demonstrated 50-100% expansion and retention of mechanical properties after expansion and phase changes under formation relevant conditions.
  • Terves completed design and construction of a modified API fracture conductivity test rig for expandable proppant initial trials.
  • Expansion under restraining loads of 2500-3000 psig was demonstrated with retention of proppant pack permeability.
  • The team successfully demonstrated approximately 11% fracture width growth with 2500 psig closure force.

Current Status (November 2016)
A Phase 2 project extension has been awarded, and detailed test and simulation planning leading to field trials in 2017 is underway. Partnerships with Case Western Reserve University for fluid chemistry, and FracGeo for proppant transport simulation, are being finalized. Design improvements are being developed and tested to increase creep resistance, expandable forces, and controlled initiation. In addition, scale-up process methods are being investigated.

During the Phase 2 program, the expandable proppant formulations will be optimized for force delivery, creep resistance, and operation under different wellbore conditions of temperature and formation type. Proppant transport, placement, and operation will be evaluated primarily using simulation and lab testing, while scalable manufacturing processes will be verified, leading to field trials in tight oil and gas reservoirs through industry collaborations.

Project Start: February 17, 2015
Project End: April 10, 2018

Project Cost Information:
DOE Contribution: $1,128,518
Performer Contribution: $0

Contact Information:
NETL – Adam Tew ( or 412-386-5389)
Terves, Inc – Andrew Sherman ( or 216-404-0053 x 103)