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Hydraulics – The machines that help build our world

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The machines that helped build our world have been powered by hydraulics, a compact system of valves, hoses, and pumps that transmits forces from point to point through fluid. This basic concept of powerful force transmission through fluid provides the drive for most machines today. From the ancient Roman mastery of the aqueduct to Universal Studios, a veritable hydraulic theme park, we see how hydraulics power industry, keep planes flying, and make that 3-point-turn a U-turn

Most people are surprised to learn that hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” is fairly old technology. It’s been around since the 1940s, actually. Today it is a household word, thanks to its prevalent and controversial use in recovering oil and gas from deep shale deposits in the continental U.S. These “unconventional” reserves consist of petrocarbons trapped in “tight” shale rock, often miles below the surface, essentially out of reach until the 1980s, when horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing were successfully combined to make it technologically and economically viable to exploit deep oil shale. “As a result,” says Michael Economides, professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at University of Houston, “shale rock has been transformed from being seen as a barrier rock between lackluster formations to becoming a target rock that contains massive quantities of trapped gas.”

And what a transformation it has been. In 2005, for example, 19 million cubic feet of gas was produced in the U.S., about the same amount the country produced in 1968. In 2012 that number was 25 million cubic feet, a new national record and more gas than any other country produced that year.

About 80% of America’s gas industry exists because of the success of hydraulic fracturing. So what is it, exactly?

Hydraulic fracturing is the process by which water, sand, and chemicals are injected, under high pressure, into deep shale deposits through a previously drilled well, fracturing the surrounding sedimentary rock and releasing trapped oil and gas. Particles of sand hold the fractures open to allow the hydrocarbons to flow freely to the surface.

Recovering gas and oil through hydraulic fracturing is actually a two-step process: The well is drilled first, followed by hydraulic fracturing. The time-consuming part is drilling and prepping the hole; hydraulic fracturing typically takes only three to ten days, after which oil and gas can be recovered for years.

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