LabNotes - February 2014

NETL and Students Benefit from STEM Education

Most people would agree that students and recent graduates need real-world work experience.  A common complaint of young college graduates trying to enter the labor force in their field of study is that they need experience in order to qualify for a position, but that no one appears willing to give it to them.  NETL participates in several STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) Education Programs that give aspiring scientists the opportunity to get hands-on experience in energy research.  Of course, the students benefit by developing their resumes, but NETL gets real value from their participation in these programs, too.  See the stories below to see how.

A GIS Technique for Making Better Maps

Jennifer Bauer’s geospatial research at NETL is helping provide better map interpretations to the geosciences.
Jennifer Bauer’s geospatial research at NETL is helping provide better map interpretations to the geosciences.

Jennifer Bauer is a recent M.S. graduate in geography from Oregon State University, and an intern in the NETL Postgraduate Research Program administered through the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE).  At NETL, her geography background and experience in spatial statistics are applied to evaluating trends and uncertainty in large sets of geospatial data. 

“I focus on assessing risks and potential impacts associated with deep and ultra-deep water drilling activities in the Gulf of Mexico, assessing potential risks and impacts associated with unconventional resources in the Appalachian Basin, and estimating carbon dioxide storage potential in the Oriskany rock formation in the Appalachian Basin,” Bauer says.

One thing all these projects have in common is the need to interpret and map large amounts of geospatial data.  Scientists are accustomed to seeing graphs and charts with error bars, which show how accurate – or certain – the data are.  But frequently in the geosciences, data – for example, sea surface temperatures – are transferred to a map and used to create a continuous interpretation, despite the fact that there are many locations on the map without data points.  These gaps in the data lead to inaccuracies in the map, which is not commonly recognized by the map users.

To help make the maps more informative, Bauer has played a key role in developing a technique for including the degree of uncertainty in information transferred to maps or other spatial interpretations.  This technique, the Variable Grid Method (VGM), is also being used to develop a software tool that plugs into ArcGIS.  ArcGIS is used across many industries to map, analyze, and show geospatial information, so the potential uses for the VGM approach and associated tool beyond their original purpose seem nearly unlimited.  Kelly Rose, her ORISE mentor, spoke highly of Bauer’s contribution and described her as “…an excellent geospatial analyst and researcher.  She played an integral part in VGM development.”

Currently, Bauer and other team members are using ArcGIS to study methods of preventing oil spills and their impacts in the Gulf of Mexico in relation to multiple industries – shipping and transport, fishing, tourism, and the oil and gas industry itself.  Although no one wants to see another oil spill, results of the analysis will help companies, communities, and governments prevent future spills and reduce impacts if it ever becomes necessary. Bauer brings up-to-date knowledge of software tools and techniques to apply to these analyses. As her mentor, Kelly Rose, describes it, “Although fundamental science generally spans generations of scientists, students just out of school bring the latest innovations, insights and IT solutions to each project.” 

Not only that, students like Jennifer Bauer bring a fresh perspective, which helps the team find innovative solutions to complex R&D challenges.

Contact: Kelly Rose, 541-967-5883

Modeling Oil-Well Blowouts

 Lawrence Sim combines his geography and engineering background to model the behavior of oil in deep water.
Lawrence Sim combines his geography and engineering background to model the behavior of oil in deep water.

When the Deepwater Horizon oil-well blowout occurred, drilling in the Gulf of Mexico was temporarily halted, and some called for a permanent ban on such wells.  The Nation’s continually growing need for oil and natural gas made this a tough choice to justify, and drilling resumed.  Now, research at NETL is helping to assess and limit the risks of such drilling activities.

Lawrence Sim divides his time between graduate school at Oregon State University and the NETL Postgraduate Research Program administered through the Oak Ridge Institute of Science and Education (ORISE).  Sim’s work at NETL for the past 3 years has been focused on development of a system of integrated modeling tools to simulate offshore oil spills resulting from deepwater (greater than 500 feet) and ultra-deepwater (greater than 5,000 feet) well blowouts.   “I am developing a spatially-explicit model that can simulate all the complexities of a blowout event, like Deepwater Horizon,” said Sim, noting that complexities in the deep ocean include high pressure, non-surfacing oil, mixed gases, jet/plume behavior and the possible formation of clathrate hydrates, or icy gas bubbles that prevent the piped removal of oil.

The model he has focused on, called the Blowout and Spill Occurrence Model (BLOSOM), addresses the impacts of a spill and can serve as the basis for development of prevention and response strategies in the event of an oil spill.  It can look at the fate and transport of oil from a seafloor point source throughout the Gulf of Mexico and beyond.  Currently, the model components simulate a plume rising from a wellhead, the long-term fate and transport of spilled hydrocarbons, weathering and degradation of oil, changes to oil’s physical and chemical properties in the deep ocean environment, and formation and decomposition of gas and gas hydrates.  Other processes such as biodegradation, dissolution, and sedimentation will be incorporated in the future.

“At the time of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, there was no seafloor-to-shore oil spill model,” said Kelly Rose, Sims’ ORISE mentor.  That event spurred many research organizations to begin developing such models, and NETL’s BLOSOM is among those getting attention from research, regulatory, and industrial organizations.  Currently, BLOSOM is participating in a model inter-comparison study hosted by the American Petroleum institute (API) that is focused on plume dynamics and droplet sizes, and is being reviewed by the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) Oil Spill Response Division.

Rose gives Sims full credit for developing BLOSOM.  “He has a good engineering and geospatial background, and understands the complexities of the system, including the chemical and physical properties of hydrocarbons.”  Over the course of the project, she conceptualized the needs she saw for the model, and he turned them into reality.  She appreciates the freshness and new knowledge he has brought to this research. 

When asked about the benefits of working with students at NETL, Rose pointed out the innovative IT solutions a recent graduate can bring to the table.  “As quick as things are changing in the IT realm, it’s good to plug into those tools.”  In this case, the result helps the nation prevent future oil-spill disasters.

Contact: Kelly Rose, 541-967-5883

Increasing Understanding of Shale Gas Emissions

 ORISE student Juliana Mbuthia helps assess risk associated with hydraulic fracturing.
ORISE student Juliana Mbuthia helps assess risk associated with hydraulic fracturing.

Risk is at the heart of many scientific and technological controversies.  Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, to produce shale gas is one of the most controversial technologies in the U.S. today, and NETL’s Office of Research and Development (ORD) is applying research techniques to help define or assess the risk associated with fracking.

Juliana Mbuthia, a participant in the NETL Postgraduate Research Program through the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE), works with ORD’s Unconventional Resources team to help assess the risk of fracking.  Her research team collects field data and applies statistical techniques to improve their understanding of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions associated with recovery of natural gas from wells in shale formations.  In shale formations, the natural gas is trapped in rocks with extremely low permeability, making recovery more difficult than from a conventional well in limestone or sandstone.  To improve permeability, fracking is used to break up the rock so that natural gas can flow and be extracted.  Mbuthia is using her background in mathematics and statistics to help determine the impacts of hydraulic fracturing.

“The main purpose of the research is to statistically analyze the data of greenhouse gas emissions and in particular, methane emissions,” said Mbuthia. “The research will help in making informed decisions and understanding the underlying concept of the greenhouse gas lifecycle.”  The broad goal of the research is to provide the public, industry, and government leaders with information to better understand the risks of acquiring the nation’s natural gas supply from shale gas formations.   A more focused goal is to more accurately estimate well completion emissions factors – the total volume of methane and other hydrocarbons that is emitted while preparing a shale gas well for production.

Mbuthia, who is pursuing a master’s degree in Electrical and Computer Engineering at Oregon State University, has specific training in Bayesian statistical techniques, which are applicable to problems where there is not enough information to use classical statistical approaches.  Because information about emissions from well completions is limited, Bayesian methods are a natural choice for studying them.  According to Dr. Robert Dilmore, Mbuthia’s mentor, she is “…trying to develop and define how to use these approaches to get at better characterizations of emissions factors in general.”  In short, the goal is getting better answers.

The value of working with student interns is similar to that of any collaborative research, but in addition, students recently out of graduate programs may bring new expertise to ORD, or have more recent training.  When asked about other benefits of working with students on NETL research, Dr. Dilmore cited their motivation and enthusiasm.  “I love working with graduate students and post-docs because they are really excited to do the work and learn what the answers might be.”

Contact: Robert Dilmore, 412-386-5763

Testing Membranes for Carbon Capture

NETL’s Professional Internship Program  through the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE). The program introduces undergraduates and recent bachelors’ graduates to the challenges of energy research while giving them the opportunity to use state-of-the-art equipment and engage with world-class scientists.  He sees the ORISE program as an opportunity to gain experience in the professional world and insight into a non-academic one.

 WVU student intern Matthew Zeh runs tests for NETL’s supported ionic liquid membranes program.
WVU student intern Matthew Zeh runs tests for NETL’s supported ionic liquid membranes program.

Matthew Zeh is an undergraduate at West Virginia University majoring in mechanical engineering and music education, and a participant in

“My favorite part of the program is interacting with real, working engineers who are engaged in real-life problems.  It is exciting to research some of the world’s most difficult problems with some very intelligent, exceptional people,” he said.

At NETL, Zeh is studying the mechanical properties of hollow-fiber, polymer membranes that contain ionic liquids, or salts that are liquid at room temperature. Together, these materials are known as supported ionic liquid membranes (SILM), and they can absorb manmade carbon dioxide emissions (CO2).  “Ionic liquids have been shown to have high carbon dioxide solubility,” he explained. “So we suspend them within the pores of hollow fiber membranes. These composite membranes are then placed into a large module—made up of several thousand membranes—used to capture carbon dioxide from coal combustion, coal gasification, and natural gas processing.”

NETL is designing SILMs to separate CO2 from H2 in syngas mixtures produced during coal gasification.  Zeh’s assignment is to evaluate the membranes’ ability to withstand the high pressures they would encounter in the separation process.  When a membrane is exposed to increasingly higher pressures, eventually the liquid will be forced out of the membrane (at what is known as the ‘bubble pressure’) or the polymer fiber will blow apart (at the ‘rupture pressure’). 

Zeh helped to design the equipment used to find the failure pressures and has been running tests and analyzing data for several years, giving his mentor, Dr. David Hopkinson, great confidence in the results of the experiments. “In the membrane community, SILMs are still a topic of research,” Dr. Hopkinson says.  “Most (membrane scientists) believe that SILMs aren’t tough enough to use in an application, and will fail by liquid being displaced from the membrane pores,” that is, at bubble pressure.  Zeh’s measurements have shown that, in many cases, the rupture pressure is lower than the bubble pressure.  This means that redesigning the SILM with a tougher polymer may allow a membrane to be used at higher pressures, and that liquid loss may be a less serious problem than was previously thought.

Dr. Hopkinson says that it is part of DOE’s and NETL’s goal to inspire future scientists and get people interested in careers focused on science and technology.  “This is a great way to do it,” he says. “There is no better way to get people interested than putting them in a lab and letting them play around.  It’s an experience not available in a classroom.”

Contact: David Hopkinson, 304-285-4360

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