ST. LOUIS — A Massachusetts-based startup came to St. Louis for an accelerator program, but an unlikely suggestion from city government may keep it here, and open it to a new market.
Eden GeoTech is developing electric fracking technology.
Fracturing, or fracking, is a method used to extract natural gas or oil. Normally it is done by sending a high-pressure stream of water, chemicals and sand into rock deep in the earth in order to release the petrochemicals trapped inside.
A lesser-known alternative is to use electricity and send voltage into rock in order to break it up.
Traditional fracking can require anywhere from 1.5 million to 16 million gallons of water per well, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Using electricity, Eden GeoTech argues, reduces that need substantially.
In the process Eden GeoTech is testing, the materials — concrete, in this case — are placed in a tank of water. Electricity is discharged from electrodes into the rock, causing it to fracture, and the debris settles to the bottom of the tank.
The 2-year-old company came to St. Louis for the Ameren Accelerator, an annual, 12-week program that provides mentoring and funding to a group of startups. Eden got $100,000.
Through the program, Eden GeoTech CEO Paris Smalls was introduced to Robert Gaskill-Clemons, the city’s chief technology officer.
Gaskill-Clemons saw an opportunity to apply Eden GeoTech’s technology to the construction industry.
For example, sometimes, just underneath a concrete sidewalk, there are relatively delicate materials, like the lines that power street lights. Lifting the sidewalk slab or jackhammering into it can cause serious damage.
“You don’t encounter it that often, but when you do, it’s pretty much a big deal,” Gaskill-Clemons said.
Smalls was interested in this idea. He thinks he can adapt electric fracking to break up city sidewalks. The startup had been solely focused on the oil and gas sector, but Smalls sees this as an opportunity to open it to other markets.
And there are other possible applications. If trials proved successful, the equipment could also be used to break up concrete for demolitions or recycling. Streetlight poles, for instance, are concrete but have rebar inside, and the two must be separated before they can be recycled.
Smalls decided to bring the electric fracking equipment from Somerville, Massachusetts, to Rolla, where Eden GeoTech will test these possibilities in a lab at the Missouri University of Science and Technology.
Smalls is confident. “There’s a 100% chance that you can break concrete with electricity,” he said. He said it’s even easier than breaking shale.
It’s just a matter of testing Eden GeoTech’s equipment.
For now it is still “laboratory scale,” Smalls said. It weighs in at around 2,500 pounds and is capable of 18,000 volts.
But when it’s fully commercialized, it will need to send about 400,000 volts into rock.
“Considering that 500 volts can kill you,” Smalls said, “it’s pretty intense.”
At this point, it’s just an experiment, Gaskill-Clemons said. The city has made no commitment to Smalls.
But Gaskill-Clemons is hopeful his work with startups will lead to opportunities to test their technology and explore potential markets.