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Innovator: Bill O'Neil is helping make safer fracturing additives

  • Name: Bill O'Neil
  • Residence: Calgary, Alberta
  • Occupation: Lab Manager, Trican Research and Development

Bill O'Neil, Lab Manager at Trican Research and Development, is working to make safer additives for hydraulic fracturing.

AS THE LAB MANAGER of Trican's Research and Development Hub, Bill O’Neil leads a staff of 22 chemists and technicians. Their focus is on developing the next generation of fracturing fluid additives and cement compounds for wellbore isolation.

The Challenge:

Hydraulic fracturing involves the use of water pumped under pressure deep into the earth to fracture shale formations, thereby releasing embedded natural gas or oil. The water is mixed with sand, as well as a variety of additives that perform key functions such as reducing friction (allowing less water and/or higher pressures to be used) and preventing corrosion of the well pipe. There are concerns, however, that some additives can be harmful to the environment and unsafe for workers.

The Innovation:

Clean tech hydraulic fracturing fluid additives are near food-grade specification.

To meet the needs of upstream producers focused on environmentally safe yet cost-effective products, O’Neil’s team has developed a number of clean technology product lines, including hydraulic fracturing fluid additives that are near food-grade specification.

“We also had an internal strategy to systematically eliminate bad additives—compounds with persisting toxic effects,” says O’Neil. “Why expose our own people and the environment to these additives when we can find or develop alternatives?”

A recent innovation that O’Neil is especially proud of is the development of friction reducers that can be transported as dry powder products to a hydraulic fracturing well site before being mixed into the fracturing fluid.

"Why expose our own people and the environment to these additives when we can find or develop alternatives?"

“Normally these compounds exist in liquid form—suspended in petroleum oil, which means there’s a risk of a spill during transport,” says O’Neil. Moving to a powder form means less material needs to be hauled to the site—reducing environmental risk, GHG emissions and road damage.

Thoughts on Innovation and the Environment:

O’Neil first joined Trican as a summer student lab technician 21 years ago, and hasn’t looked back. He appreciates the investment Trican has made to research and development while fostering a culture of innovation.

“We’re given the opportunity to really explore—to play with new ideas and approaches and daydream solutions to problems. We’ll never lose that—not under my watch,” O’Neil says.

O’Neil strongly believes that robust resource development and strong environmental standards can coexist, particularly with a focus on continuous improvement.

“I absolutely believe we can operate and be absolutely safe. In my time with the industry, we’ve made great strides—even in things like managing a site, equipment design and other technologies. There are things today that didn’t even exist 20 years ago.”