Unconventional Fuels, Gas and Oil

As long as society continues to use fossil fuels as an energy source, there is a large need to minimize the negative impacts of producing oil and gas. How can the maximum amount of oil and gas be extracted from existing conventional fields, to minimize the need to encroach on the growing footprint of communities? How can the new technologies that have led to production from unconventional fields be improved so that risks of polluting water and escaping methane are reduced? How can the use of water in both conventional and unconventional production be reduced? How can pipelines be made safer?

Conventional oil and gas production is actually rather inefficient; pumping oil out of the pore spaces in rocks deep underground leaves about two-thirds behind. While strategies exist to inject water or carbon dioxide in certain wells in a field to drive the oil to production wells, the success of that strategy is diminished because the flow paths through the rocks are usually poorly known. Lawrence Cathles’ research group, as part of the KAUST-Cornell Center for Energy and Sustainability, is investigating the flow of oil through the pore systems between wells. They do this by developing new types of nanoparticles with properties designed to move unhampered in concert with certain categories of fluids, and to be readily identified when they arrive at a monitoring well.

Unconventional production, from fine-grained rocks with large amounts of oil or natural gas but which lack natural interconnections between pores, has changed the U.S. energy landscape but raises numerous challenges. Can the combined technologies of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing  use less water, generate fewer wastes, and be more efficient? A team blended from the research groups of Teresa Jordan, Alan Zehnder, Sheffield Baker, and James Bisogni is examining the basic fracture properties of organic-rich rock, the natural variability of rock properties that influence how engineered fractures will propagate, and the possibilities to select fracturing fluid chemistry that minimizes environmental and health risks.  Susan Riha’s research group in the Water Resources Institute examines water supply, contamination, and safe disposal alternatives. The new and widespread production of unconventional fuels also has challenged community services, policies, and economic development, which are themes examined by the research groups of Richard Stedman, and of David Kay and Rod Howe of Cornell’s Community and Regional Development Program.

Intensive production of oil and gas has led to the injection of a growing amount of fluids into subsurface rocks, both to enhance conventional production and to interconnect pores for unconventional production. The research group of Katie Keranan is exploring the production of earthquakes that are directly and indirectly triggered by building fluid pressure underground, and that of Larry Brown is using the microseismic activity intentionally generated by hydraulic fracturing to image the pre-existing architecture of the gas reservoirs. A research group directed by Christopher Earls and Rowena Lohman is improving the detection of changes in subsurface pressure fields from satellite data and numerical modeling.

The risks continue once the oil and gas are released from the rocks: pipelines must contain the fuels with leaking or breaking. The research group of Derek Warner explores ductile fracture processes in pipelines.


Faculty Involved: Sheffield BakerJames Bisogni, Larry BrownLawrence Cathles IIIChristopher Earls, Al GeorgeRod Howe, Andrew HunterTeresa JordanDavid KayKatie Keranen, Donald Koch, Rowena Lohman, Michal Moore, Matthew Pritchard, Patrick ReedSusan RihaRichard StedmanDerek Warner, Yong JooAlan Zehnder