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Tech Expands Carbon Sequestration Work With Two Grants

SOCORRO, N.M. September 9, 2009 – Already a leading research institution for carbon sequestration in the nation, New Mexico Tech is expanding its research and education in the burgeoning research arena.

The university recently received two new grants from the Department of Energy related to the capture and storage of the greenhouse gas. One grant will help educate the researchers of tomorrow by creating new courses and materials related to carbon sequestration. Another grant will fund a research project to build a new computer code to assess the environmental impacts of carbon capture-and-storage project in the Midwest.

The Petroleum Research and Recovery Center, or PRRC, at New Mexico Tech has an ongoing $120 million project to conduct a carbon sequestration pilot project in the Southwest; with the latest grants, the university’s Earth and Environmental Science Department will join the effort. The PRRC is the lead institution for the Southwest Regional Partnership for Carbon Sequestration, one of seven such regional groups.

Educational Opportunities

In collaboration with the PRRC, Tech’s Earth and Environmental Science department has received $994,000 to develop an array of educational programs related to carbon sequestration for high school, university and distance education students. Geochemistry professor Dr. Andrew Campbell will spearhead Tech’s effort to expand the educational offerings.

“The Department of Energy put out a call for carbon sequestration education to train the next generation of scientists to work in the field,” he said. “We must reduce carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel use and carbon capture-and-storage is one of the main methods.”

The Department of Energy is investing significant resources in finding economical methods for capturing and storing greenhouse gas emissions in order to assure low-cost electricity from coal-fired power plants. The Department has taken the stance that CO2 storage in deep geologic formations will likely be one of the most economical ways to reduce the levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Campbell said the E&ES Department will use the grant to develop an array of avenues to interest students in the geology, science and technology of carbon capture and storage. New Mexico Tech will share the $994,000 grant with Texas A&M and the University of Utah – both of whom are members of the Southwest Regional Partnership on Carbon Sequestration.

Campbell said that Tech and its partners can take the lead in educating the next generation of scientists in that field.
For high school students, Campbell said he and Dr. Peter Mozley will develop a weeklong summer mini-course that focuses on geology, carbon and climate change.

For graduate students, geology professor Dr. Bruce Harrison will create a new course in the Master’s of Science Teaching program. In addition, the three universities will collaborate on developing an interdisciplinary graduate course, available to each other via distance education.

Hydrology professor Dr. Mark Person will help develop the graduate level course and design flow visualization models to aid students in understanding the controls on CO2 movement in the subsurface.

The core of the new grant will be to offer a new earth science undergraduate option in carbon sequestration, along with a senior level capstone course in the discipline, which will be taught by Campbell and Mozley.

“The senior level course will be broader than just the geology of carbon sequestration,” Campbell said. “We will also deal with climate change and discuss why carbon capture-and-storage is so important. We have a global problem with climate and it’s getting worse. We need to talk about the geology of carbon storage in terms of climate change.”

In addition to new course offerings, Campbell said the faculty members in Earth and Environmental Science have agreed to add content related to the topic in other geology courses.

“We will be offering education on a variety of levels,” Campbell said. “We want students to know that this represents a viable career option.”

Basin-Scale Simulation

In addition to the educational efforts, the Office of Fossil Energy’s National Energy Technology Laboratory selected Tech as one of 19 research institutions to study the potential risks of carbon dioxide storage in geologic formations.

New Mexico Tech hydrology professor, Dr. Mark Person, will lead the Tech effort to simulate, track, and evaluate on-going carbon sequestration pilot projects in Indiana and Illinois as well as try to forecast the long-term consequences of large scale CO2 injection scenarios. The Illinois Basin is one region where the Department of Energy is considering CO2 sequestration because it contains thick permeable sandstone and carbonate layers that have saline pore fluids at depth. The Illinois Basin covers an area roughly 450 kilometers by 600 kilometers and spans most of Illinois and Indiana as well as the northern edge of Kentucky. The region includes dozens of coal-fired power plants that produce about 150 million tons of CO2 every year.

While the educational grant aims to train the next generation of carbon sequestration scientists, Person’s project will focus on developing a new computer model that industry could use to assess the potential impacts of carbon capture-and-storage. Person said simulation models such as the one they will be developing will be used on virtually every CO2 injection project across the country. Training of students to use these models should enhance their employment opportunities.

The Department of Energy will put $853,144 into the project over three years, while Tech will put $191,151 into the project. Dr. Person and his Tech colleagues will collaborate with scientists at Princeton University, Los Alamos National Labs, Purdue University and the Indiana Geological Survey.

Person will work closely with Dr. Mike Celia of Princeton University to develop a new 3D computer model of CO2 injection into the Mount Simon Sandstone within the Illinois Basin.

“If you inject CO2 into the deep brine-filled aquifer such as the Mount Simon, it behaves as a separate fluid phase that does not mix well with water,” he said. “Our multi-layer model will represent the boundary between brine and CO2 phases as a razor sharp interface.”

Person and Celia have both developed sharp interface models to define how CO2 will move through permeable sedimentary units. However, these models have been limited in that they only represented CO2 movement in a single aquifer overlain by a confining unit. The new project will extend their work by simulating CO2 as it migrates across multiple aquifers and confining units within a sedimentary basin.

In addition, their model will include both freshwater and brine movement. Including a freshwater zone is important because cities along the edge of the Illinois Basin rely on the Mount Simon aquifer for drinking water. Once the team is confident in their equations and computer code, they’ll test their model using existing two-phase CO2 models developed at Los Alamos National Laboratory in collaboration with Dr. Carl Gable.

The traditional method of modeling CO2 transport at the sedimentary basin scale would be prohibitively expensive, in terms of computational time. The new model Celia and Person hope to develop will be computationally efficient because it relies on sharp-interface theory.

The new 3-D simulation will incorporate all the variables of injecting liquid CO2 into a geological formation including spatial variations in permeability, porosity, pore pressures and salinity as well as the location of abandoned petroleum wells (which may be leak points) and fault zones.

As part of their analysis, Person and his colleagues will try to assess how pore pressures might increase and whether or not brine displacements will occur towards the margins of the basin. They will also try to estimate how much of this CO2 might leak back to the surface through abandoned oil and gas wells.

“It’s challenging theoretically to develop multiple interfaces into one model and try to apply this with real world data,” he said. “We need to be confident that the parameters are representative of the Illinois Basin. We’ll have to do a huge synthesis of hydrological data, which isn’t not in a nice, digital format. There are a lot of challenges. There are many layers within confining layers.”

– NMT –

By Thomas Guengerich/New Mexico Tech