Hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," has led to a boom in U.S. natural gas and oil production, but it remains controversial because of the potential harm it can cause to the environment.
A Tucson company is working to make fracking more efficient and cleaner with technology developed for the aerospace industry.
Tucson Embedded Systems Inc. has adapted engine controls originally developed for aircraft turbine engines to run turbines used by a Louisiana-based company to power the massive pumps used in fracking.
Fracking involves pumping fluids underground to fracture layers of rock, allowing gas or oil to flow for recovery. The practice, which is banned in some countries, has the U.S. on track to become the world's biggest oil and gas producer in a few years.
But fracking has been assailed by environmental groups who say fracking can lead to contamination of groundwater, soil and air, including methane leaks and emissions from pumping equipment.
Tucson Embedded's industrial digital engine controls, or IDECs, allow the turbines to quickly change from using diesel fuel to cleaner-burning natural gas.
And soon, the turbines will be able to use "field gas" - a waste product of drilling often burned off at the wellhead.
The local company is working with Green Field Energy Services, a Lafayette, La., company that began offering turbine-powered fracking equipment in 2010 as a less costly and cleaner alternative to diesel-powered pumping equipment generally used by the industry.
Around the same time, Tucson Embedded decided to develop new turbine engine controls, building on its experience working with jet engine maker Honeywell Aerospace.
The local company had lost business when Honeywell and other aerospace companies started offshoring engineering work, said David Crowe, president and co-founder of Tucson Embedded Systems.
"We've lost a lot of aerospace engineering to India and China, but my philosophy and gamble in 2010 was that small business could actually do this, too," said Crowe, a University of Arizona electrical and computer engineering grad.
"So instead of trying to wait for the work to come back, we decided to start to invest in turbine control and developed our own product and service."
Tucson Embedded had further developed nonaerospace turbine engine controls in projects for the U.S. and Swedish navies, when Green Field discovered the company through industry contacts.
The company first tested its engine controls with Green Field in April 2012 in Louisiana. In October, Green Field announced it had picked Tucson Embedded to supply 25 engine control units.
The digital controls allow operators to switch between burning natural gas and burning diesel, literally with the flip of a switch, Crowe said.
The ultimate aim is to power the fracking turbines with field gas, using a resource that might otherwise be burned off and reducing many airborne pollutants.
Green Field President Rick Fontova said that when used with gas, the turbine rigs produce 86 percent less nitrogen oxide and about 85 percent less carbon monoxide than typical diesel-fired fracking pumps.
But perhaps equally important, the turbine fracking rigs take up half the space of comparably powered diesel rigs, cutting space needs and installation and operating costs, Fontova said.
"We don't need as big of a footprint, and of course because it's a turbine, our emissions are substantially lower than a reciprocating (diesel) engine," Fontova said.
Tucson Embedded is a valuable partner to Green Field, whose annual revenues approach $150 million, Fontova said.
"We found them to be very customer-oriented and very high-tech, and they've proven to be good partners for us, because we're both basically trailblazers, doing new things," Fontova said.
The company has already demonstrated its turbines can run on liquefied natural gas and compressed natural gas, he said.
In January, the company successfully tested a turbine running exclusively on field gas in a trial at an oil field in the Texas Panhandle. In the next couple of weeks, the company plans to use a turbine fueled with field gas in an actual fracking operation in Pennsylvania, Fontova said.
Meanwhile, Crowe said, Tucson Embedded is working with Green Field on the next generation engine-control technology: systems to allow fracking rigs to essentially run on "cruise control," eliminating the need for constant human adjustment.
While the rigs would still require human supervision, "cruise fracking" could improve safety by eliminating human error in making constant adjustments.
"They're still monitoring it, but they're not having to push a button every second," Crowe said. "It's all about safety and efficiency."
The fracking projects have opened up a whole new market for Tucson Embedded, which had long relied on defense business.
"This is a big deal, getting into the energy sector, because with the program budgeting, the military is a risk to be in solely, so this is a diversification," Crowe said.
DID YOU KNOW?
Tucson Embedded Systems Inc. was founded in 1996 by University of Arizona engineering graduate David Crowe, along with fellow UA alumni Dennis Kenman, Sean Mulholland and Antonio Procopio, who are all still with the company.
The company, which employs about 90 people, provides engineering, software, specialty manufacturing and related services, for customers including the U.S. Army and Raytheon Missile Systems.
In March, Crowe was selected as a winner of the 2013 Manufacturing Leadership 100 Award, given by a division of the research and consulting firm Frost & Sullivan in the manufacturing entrepreneur category.
Contact Assistant Business Editor David Wichner at email@example.com or 573-4181.