Hydraulic fracturing (HF) continues to be a critical and controversial technology for U.S. energy policy and the larger implications of cleantech. This method can be used to recover natural gas from deep shale such as the Barnett or Marcellus Shale centered in Texas and Pennsylvania, respectively. In particular, the developments in Pennsylvania's Marcellus Shale in the past several years have attracted much political and media attention, including environmental debate. In this post, some important patent trends are reported which illustrate how critical HF has become to the U.S. economy and innovation.

First, 2010 was a record breaking year for hydraulic fracturing at the USPTO. Patent search results showed 257 patent were issued in 2010 which referred to HF. Moreover, already in 2011, as of today, 47 more HF patents have issued which projects to over 220 in 2011 if that trend continues.
In stark contrast, from 1981 to 2003, the USPTO only issued about 50 HF patents a year. The trend was remarkably steady over these 23 years with a high of 73 in 1993 and a low of 25 in 1982.

However, from 2004 to 2010, the USPTO now issued about 156 patents a year - more than tripling the patenting output. 2010 was the first year that the number went over 200, and the 200 plus trend appears to be continuing in 2011 as noted above.

In all, 2,471 U.S. HF patents have issued since 1976. In future blog posts, more details about and trends for these patents will be examined. For example, we noted that over 70 of these patents stem from federally funded research, including Department of Energy research. One patent relates to the use of nanoparticles as a reinforcing agent (U.S. Patent No. 7,135,231).

This recent explosion in HF patenting, per media reports, correlates roughly to when hydraulic fracturing, coupled with horizontal drilling, became more widely known in the industry for its roles in deep shale natural gas extraction. For example, the Pittsburgh Post Gazette published this account today on the role of Wall Street, exploration corporations, and academia (Penn State) in the development of Marcellus Shale. Another recent account summarizes the history of HF technology and Marcellus Shale. The development of HF goes back to the late 1940's, more than 60 years ago. Hence, HF technology graphically illustrates that the economic exploitation of innovation can take 50 years and longer. The synergy of different technologies which merge together such as the combination of HF and horizontal drilling is also graphically illustrated.