During the past decade, the completion technique used in liquid-rich unconventional plays in North America has undergone a transformation. Today, the vast majority of completions in these areas are open-hole (OH) graduated ball-drop fracturing isolation systems. This preferred completion type for horizontal wells is driven by the efficiency gains in fracturing operations and the production gains when compared to previously used completion techniques. Thousands of open-hole fracturing systems are run each year, with a continuously growing stage count.

Graduated ball-drop type completions rely on a sliding sleeve activated by a ball dropped from surface. Each ball travels the length of the lateral well to its intended operational depth, at which it meets a mated seat and isolates the wellbore below. Once the ball is in position, the sliding sleeve opens via the hydraulic force on the ball and seat, allowing a fracturing stage to commence. This dual function of the ball—activation and sealing—is of extreme importance for the stimulation treatment process. If the ball fails, it will result in bypassed pay zones and unintentional refracturing of previously stimulated zones. Although sometimes surface pressures can be used to infer ball behavior, often the pressure signals observed at surface cannot guarantee successful ball performance.

This paper will present an extensive study of ball performance under pressure for the most common ball materials in the industry. Phenolic, composite and metal alloy materials were explored with the pros and cons for each investigated. In particular three main areas were analyzed: 1) molding, layering and extrusion of material versus inconsistencies in ball performance; 2) ball deformation at high pressure versus pressure required to bring the ball off seat; and 3) comparison of the performance of phenolic, composite and metal alloy materials for ball fabrication and their performance at high temperature.

The conclusions from this paper provide operators the necessary information to consider when making completion and ball material decisions in their field operations. In particular, the results of this testing may illuminate some previously unexplainable occurrences in graduated ball sliding-sleeve systems. This testing clarified that not all fracturing balls pumped in horizontal wells perform equivalently under wellbore fracture conditions.

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