Posts Tagged ‘natural gases’

Science makes Sense Week 4: Chemistry and Social Justice, fracking, natural gases, pollutants, water

September 14, 2015

“Drill baby drill!’ was the rallying cry in 2008 before the Presidential Elections by a certain party in the United States. It did not matter that the opposing party won the elections since drilling for oil in Alaska and fracking in several states is being continued with no stoppage.

Last week, I talked about the petroleum industry and the heavy dependence on all the by-products for our energy needs here in the United States. The spread of Chemistry and its applications has been exciting and fruitful in industry, pharmaceuticals, cosmetics (to name a few) especially for the past century. Along with the benefits, there has been side effects that have adversely affected the human race as well as the environment around us. Every fourth week we shall look at this under the sub heading” Chemistry and Social Justice” Today I will focus on the popularity of fracking to extract natural gases from shale oil.

Most petroleum products are extracted using oil rigs that look for fossil fuels in land and water (called off-shore drilling) However, in the early 14th century, shale oil deposits ( layer of rock sometimes thousands of feet below) were discovered and used in Switzerland and Austria, for fuel and lighting. This deeper layer was not used much after the discovery of oil in the mid 19th century from under the ground in the United States.But, now once again, shale oil extraction, called fracking, is prevalent in the 20th and 21st century.

What is fracking? Fracking, also known as ‘hydraulic fracturing’ is the process used to force water under pressure through a vertical and horizontal tubing  under ground to the shale oil depth. The diagram illustrates the setup while Reference #2 explains fracking clearly. The forced water along with a tubing that enters the pipe causes fissures (breakages) in the soil forcing natural gas and petroleum to seep into the pipes and get pumped out. Natural gas is made up of methane (CH4) and ethane (C2H6). while the other petroleum by products could range from propane (C3H8) and higher alkanes of the general formula  CnH2n+2 . (Last week’s blog explains the chemistry a little more.)


As one can see, the fracking process is fraught with problems. First, a lot of water is used that will definitely deplete the water table levels. People and livestock in the area will be affected by less water availability. Second, the water table could be contaminated by all the chemicals used in the fracking process. (These chemicals could seep into the water table.) What are these chemicals?

There are more than 50 chemicals used and the fracking industry is secretive/ignorant about some of the chemicals . Many of the chemicals listed are known carcinogens and methane, one of the products collected, is extremely flammable. Also, methane has been documented to play a critical role in climate change. Xylene and toluene, hydrocarbons that have a ring like structure are also present, very toxic and easily inhaled since they are volatile liquids. (Any liquid that can convert to gas molecules at room temperature is called volatile, just like gasoline.)

“Gasland”, the documentary made a few years ago, clearly illustrates how people living in the area where fracking took place were afraid to open their faucets. This was because the water was mixed with methane and cloudy. When the faucet was opened, sometimes, flames would appear at the mouth of the faucet if a lighted match was placed there.

Fourth, earthquakes are prone to happen in the areas where fracking takes place, since the soil layers, thousands of feet below the ground, have been disturbed considerably. There are  more reasons outlined in one of the references,but these four are sufficient to reconsider fracking and look for alternative sources of energy like electric, wind , hydro and solar for our energy needs.

Additions/ Corrections: Natural gas is used not just for cooking but for heating purposes as well.

Activities for Middle School teachers:compare the gold rush of 1849 with the oil rush that began in 1859 and continues till today. This could be a combined project with the social studies teacher.Students could also research news articles about fracking in their states/ neighboring states and the public opposition to it.

Nuggets of information: Southern Illinois is where most of the fracking takes place in Illinois; however there are fracking sites in McHenry County as well.

The United States contains three-quarters of the world’s shale oil reserves.

Even though the United States is moving towards renewable energy sources, It is still among the top consumers/ producers of petroleum along with natural gas and coal, all non-renewable energy sources.


“Oil Shale” (PDF). Colorado School of Mines. 2008. p. 2. Retrieved 2008-12-24