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Better Fracking Through Sound-Sensing Fiber Optics

Fiber-optic tools can record and visualize fracking explosions
Fracking in Bradford County, Pa., in May 2012
Fracking in Bradford County, Pa., in May 2012Photograph by Katie Orlinsky/Getty Images

The ecologically controversial practice of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, has helped push U.S. oil production to a 21-year high. It also remains a very expensive guessing game. Drilling companies often fire the mixture of chemicals, sand, and water more or less blindly at rocks that hold oil and natural gas to create fissures and extract the seeping fuel.

To find and measure a bedrock fracture, microseismic sensors in a nearby monitoring well track subtle earth movements as the rock cracks. Fracking each well typically takes 15 “stages” of mixture-firing at about $100,000 a pop, says Alexander Robart, a principal at PacWest Consulting Partners, which focuses on oil and gas. Success during the process is hard to determine: Robart says 80 percent of North American production comes from about 20 percent of the stages.