In-House Watershed Science & Technology R&D

The Geosciences Division of NETL's Office of Science and Technology conducts ongoing in-house research and development pertaining to water issues related to energy production. The division provides skill, expertise, and technical support for NETL's environmental and energy technologies programs that are consistent with the mission of NETL.

Geophysical Investigations
NETL is continuously developing new geophysical technologies that address environmental issues associated with the extraction and utilization of fossil fuels. Specifically, NETL has used helicopter electromagnetic and night-time thermal infrared surveys to detect and map contaminated groundwater at abandoned coal mines in north-central Pennsylvania and at an abandoned mercury mine in California. Also, NETL has used helicopter electromagnetic surveys to identify potentially hazardous conditions (unconsolidated slurry pockets, high phreatic zones, and shallow underground mines) at 14 coal waste impoundments in southern West Virginia with a moderate to high hazard potential. In the Powder River Basin of Wyoming, helicopter electromagnetic surveys were flown to determine the best management strategy for water co-produced with coalbed natural gas. Hazards posed by abandoned wells prompted NETL to develop airborne and ground-based well finding strategies for surveying both large, open areas and small, highly developed areas. The intent of this research is to develop cost-effective airborne geophysical technologies that rapidly gather needed information from large areas, especially areas that might otherwise be inaccessible. Ground surveys from mobile platforms have been developed for use where airborne surveys are not possible or practical.

Novel Biosensors for the Detection of Environmental Contaminants
Rapid and inexpensive ways are needed to detect environmental contaminants generated by coal-burning power plants. The potential release of contaminated water from ash and scrubber liquor ponds, as well as biocides and corrosion inhibitors from cooling towers, can adversely impact the quality of surface and ground water. Mercury, lead, arsenic, and chromium are among the more serious metal contaminants that can be released to the environment by the burning of coal. Traditional methods of analyzing these elements in water and soil are both expensive and time-consuming, and this severely limits the number of samples that can be analyzed. The development of biosensors that rapidly detect and signal the presence of these pollutants is one potential solution to this problem.

The overall research goal of this project is to develop new and effective means of rapidly assessing contaminant concentrations within power plants and in the environment. The rapid detection of low levels of mercury is a current priority because relatively simple measurements of mercury will facilitate more thorough screenings of contaminant levels in the environment and help assess the impact of power plant mercury control technologies. In addition to the development of sensors using uniquely isolated bacteria from the environment, NETL researchers are utilizing novel biological molecules, such as the jellyfish photoprotein aequorin, as specific mercury detectors. Recent research has addressed the use of novel molecular beacons consisting of modified oligonucleotide sequences that are specific for metal contaminants, with an ability for fluorescence that changes in response to the quantity of contaminant present. In addition, unusual dyes that glow under ultraviolet light in the presence or absence of mercury are also being tested. Finally, extensive testing of developed methods under environmental conditions is required to confirm both the validity and robustness of newly developed technologies.

Microorganisms can accelerate the degradation of potentially harmful pollutants in the environment. Industries active from up to 50 to 150 years ago have left contaminated sites to be dealt with today. Thousands of abandoned oil wells in Pennsylvania, for example, especially those found along streams and rivers, continue to pose a potential threat to the environment. These wells are being systematically located and plugged by the U.S. EPA in northwestern PA. NETL researchers have been assisting the EPA in assessing the effectiveness of natural processes in remediating petroleum-contaminated soils generated during these plugging operations. In addition to monitoring seasonal changes in total petroleum hydrocarbons at contaminated sites, NETL researchers have developed analytical field techniques based on the water repellency of the soil that allow workers at the site to determine the effectiveness of bioremediation approaches. In addition, NETL is doing research on the use of wood rot fungi to remediate contaminated wood tar sites, which pose a threat to the environmental health of nearby streams. These organisms can break down the complex aromatic organic compounds, such as polyaromatic hydrocarbons and cresols, found at these sites.

Mine Water
In the area of clean water, NETL is conducting basic and applied research related to the prediction, prevention, and treatment of water contaminated by the mining and processing of coal and metals. This research includes developing inexpensive water treatment technologies for inactive and abandoned sites under the charge of local, state, and federal agencies. Research on the passive and semi-passive treatment of mine drainage has lead to significant developments in the modeling of iron oxidation rates, anoxic limestone drains, and reducing and alkalinity producing systems. A manual outlining criteria to be used for the selection and sizing of passive systems, “The Passive Treatment of Coal Mine Drainage,” represents the culmination of much of this research.

NETL also investigates the use of underground mine water for heating and cooling. Many mining regions in the United States contain extensive areas of flooded underground mines. The water within these mines represents a significant opportunity for extracting low-grade, geothermal energy. Based on current energy prices, geothermal heat pump systems using mine water could reduce the annual costs for heating over 70 percent compared to conventional heating methods (natural gas or heating oil). These same systems could reduce annual cooling costs by up to 50 percent over standard air conditioning in many areas of the country.

Of particular interest is the Pittsburgh coal seam in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Ohio. The availability of underground mine water in the Appalachian coal region is widespread. The total volume of water estimated to be stored in the Pittsburgh coal seam is over one trillion gallons. About 4 percent of this volume (50 billion gallons) is discharged at the surface each year by treatment plants and abandoned discharges. This discharged volume of water could potentially be used to heat and cool up to 40 million square feet of interior space, roughly equivalent to 20,000 homes.

Related Papers, Publications and Presentations:

Contacts: For further information on the Watershed Science and Technology In-House Research contact Bob Kleinmann.