Monday, March 17, 2014

Fracking Away

Everybody knows the importance of technology & innovation. But when it comes to turning theory into practice, very few countries have been able to actually create an enabling environment that encourages real innovation.

In recent times, nothing illustrates this better than Fracking.

Geological surveys had revealed decades ago that vast reserves of energy lay hidden beneath impermeable layers of rocks. It took a geologist named George Mitchell nearly 50 years of persistence to find a cost-effective way of extracting shale gas and oil from these rocks.

Today, nearly 40% of USA's natural gas comes from fracking. It has not only made the country a net gas exporter but also changed international power-politics by reducing the bargaining strength of Russia and the Gulf states.

The interesting part here - one that is often sidelined - is that Mitchell's technology would not have been a success without the support of various government agencies. Three key inputs that he got were -- mapping and confirmation of large volumes of gas reserves available underground; development of diamond-studded drill bits and a tax credit (part Jimmy Carter's 1980s law to tax 'windfall profits'), for drilling out unconventional natural gas.

On the sidelines of this revolution, there have been some unexpected success stories in India. Farmers who cultivate Guar (cluser beans), have seen their profits shoot up. Last year (2012-13) 90% of India's production - 406,000MT of guar-gum, worth Rs. 21,000 Cr (~US$ 5 billion) - was exported to USA, China and Australia.

What is the connection between a legume grown as cattle-feed in arid Rajasthan and Gujarat, and the newfangled oil-drilling technology?

Well, somebody found out long ago that guar-gum is a pretty strong water-soluble lubricant. In 1998, when Goerge Mitchell was in his 80s, his team started using guar-gum with water instead of expensive foams and drilling gels. The rest, of course, is history.


  • The Economist - Schumpeter - The Father of Fracking --
  • Interview (Aug, 2013) --
  • NYT Obituary on George Mitchell -- He Fracked Until It Paid Off --
  • Why Guar Beans Matter --
  • APEDA on Guar Gum Exports --

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