Using data from thousands of existing natural gas wells, the most comprehensive well-production data to date, Eugene Morgan, associate teaching professor, plots a heat map of the most lucrative and untapped areas in the Marcellus Shale region.
Just down the hall in the Hosler Building, Jeremy Gernand, assistant professor of industrial health and safefy, is mapping potential spots for wells. His criteria: sites with the least impact on public health.
When you overlay these two maps, the result is potential sources of energy that minimize the risks. And when you pair people like Morgan and Gernand, and the dozens of other researchers with varied expertise in the John and Willie Leone Family Department of Energy and Mineral Engineering, the result is one of the most comprehensive approaches on the planet for leading the future of energy.
Diverse research interests
It’s an approach, said Department Head Sanjay Srinivasan, that exists because of the department’s diverse research interests and its home in a college that complements those research interests.
“There are departments that focus on renewables or petroleum and natural gas and maybe some minerals but there is no department that spans the entire range of topics from unconventional production, fossil fuels, all the way to solar and other sources,” Srinivasan said. “Another unique aspect is how we include economics and finance into our research portfolio.”
Experts in fossil fuels, which provided 63.6 percent of the nation’s energy in 2018 according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), the department’s faculty investigate efficient extraction while minimizing impact. Researchers such as Russell Johns, the George E. Trimble Chair in Energy and Mineral Sciences, and Hamid Emami-Meybodi, assistant professor of petroleum and natural gas engineering, guide industry with measures that improve primary and secondary oil extraction. Finding more resources with fewer wells is more cost effective and helps minimize environmental impacts. Their recent research showed minor changes in secondary extraction methods could double secondary oil output.
Others, such as Shimin Liu, associate professor of energy and mineral engineering, address ways to increase the safety for coal miners. His research looks at structural mine safety and ventilation system designs. Although coal for power is playing a diminishing role, it has countless industrial applications such as steel production and carbon filtration.
Sekhar Bhattacharyya, associate teachng professor, Derek Elsworth, professor of energy and geo-environmental engineering, and Liu are investigating ways to improve ventilation in underground mines with large openings. This research is important because it can improve safety and offer better design guidelines for mine ventilation systems, which are not understood in detail in the United States,” said Bhattacharyya.
The newly launched Center for Critical Minerals, housed within the college, keeps to the time-tested tradition set forth by Dean Edward Steidle, who saw minerals as vital to the nation’s future.
Minerals are part of virtually every product manufactured in the modern global economy. New technologies from touch-screen displays to batteries to solar panels and in the medical, energy, and defense industries are increasingly reliant on specific critical minerals not widely used a few decades ago.
Many of these critical minerals are imported. They are classified as critical because they have high economic importance, high supply risk, and their absence would have significant consequences on the nation’s security and economy.
At the Center for Geomechanics, Geofluids, and Geohazards, led by faculty in EME and the Department of Geosciences, experts apply knowledge of rock and fluid mechanics to solving real-world problems. The research focuses on three areas: understanding and warning of natural disasters, fuel recovery, and providing safe and sustainable storage of industrial products and waste.
Researchers are also looking at ways of turning carbon-based waste products into materials.
At the EMS Energy Institute, led by Chunshan Song, distinguished professor of fuel science, researchers are exploring efficient ways of converting carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into fuels, solvents, useful materials, industrial chemicals, and other products.
“Our current energy system largely relies on carbon-based fossil energies,” Song said. “But in the future, if we begin using carbon from carbon dioxide, we can recycle it, create a sustainable carbon-based energy cycle, and then we stabilize the carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere.”
Positioned for the future
Renewables, the nation’s fastest growing energy source, are expected to increase by 2.6 percent a year through 2040, according to EIA.
Jobs have followed. Solar photovoltaic installers top the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ list of fastest growing occupations, and are forecast to more than double between 2016-26. Second is wind turbine service technicians, slightly behind with 96 percent forecasted growth within the same period. The next occupation on the list, home health aides, is expected to grow at half that rate.
Experts such as Jeffrey Brownson, associate professor of energy and mineral engineering, and colleagues lead the charge in giving undergraduates an edge in these growing energy systems. They represent the Renewable Energy Technologies and Power Systems group, about a dozen Penn State experts tasked with researching interdisciplinary approaches to renewable energy that incorporates economics, engineering, and operations to address the challenges of creating the power system of the future.
As the grid goes green, energy market experts such as Seth Blumsack, professor of energy policy and economics, are making sure power supplies don’t go dark. He looks at how factors such as energy policy, solar and wind-farm locations, and shifting energy needs affect the overall stability of the grid.
If energy needs fall short, carbon-based power plants are forced to react on the fly. That drives up the costs of energy. Overgeneration also leads to waste and higher costs. Sometimes, errors can lead to brownouts or blackouts, which is not ideal for a nation dependent on a reliable power supply.
Blumsack works with others in the department and the University, including Chiara Lo Prete, assistant professor of energy economics and an expert in energy markets and manipulation, to better understand how policies have a broad impact on energy costs and carbon emissions.
Forecasting wind and solar output can be trying. But having experts in meteorology and atmospheric science and geography, two other departments in the college, leads to collaborations in the same way that geosciences has aided fossil fuels experts.
“This is a unique thing about EMS,” Srinivasan said. “We have experts in geosciences, geography, GIS, meteorology, and materials science. Energy production borrows heavily from the technology that’s housed here. That’s all possible because of where we are in this college.
Production data holds clues to potential of new wells
Penn State researchers wanted to know if the production data for existing wells within the Marcellus Shale could predict the output potential of new natural gas wells, without relying on costly core samples from the area.
So they collected data from more than 5,600 existing wells to create a heat map for the region, using only wells with more than two years of production logs, and assigned a decline curve analysis—the amount of production loss over time—for each well. They then applied these decline curves over the entire region of the Marcellus Shale.
The result shows potential high yield areas, noted in blue on the inset on right, can be found more easily and with lower costs. https://bit.ly/36EljOR