Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, has become an increasingly popular natural gas extraction method in recent years. However, emerging research suggests that patents surrounding the proprietary materials and processes employed by energy corporations may be inadvertently inhibiting industry-wide progress.
According to a new joint study from Pennsylvania State University and the University of Alberta, a majority of components contained within fracking operations are classified as trade secrets and thus withheld from third-party observation. However, business method patents describing how those proprietary systems and materials are applied may be more worrisome as they limit follow-on research that could improve the quality and safety of an invention.
"Field and laboratory experimentation is necessary to fully capture how the exploitation of shale gases impacts the environment," the report stated. "Normally, third parties such as [non-governmental organizations] and universities would be able to fill this information gap by conducting experiments, but patents may play a new and surprising role in limiting this important source of information production."
Researchers concluded that the rate of patent activity related to fracking far surpassed that of separate natural gas extraction techniques. Moreover, the spike observed over the last decade suggests that this may be a conscious area of focus in today's industrial operating strategies.