Innovation Strategy profile: Engineers, public policy experts seek sustainable, enhanced economic outcomes from shale boom

Andrea Gibson
April 1, 2016

The following is reposted from the Ohio University Office of Research Communications. Read the original post here.


Appalachia may be enjoying the economic benefits of the shale industry now, but a team of Ohio University engineers and public policy experts are concerned about the fate of the region once the extraction of those natural resources is over.

Ohio University recently awarded $1.3 million from its Innovation Strategy program to help the team explore ways to keep more jobs and revenue from the energy industry in Appalachia and prepare the workforce and communities for life after the shale boom.

“Once the resources are out of the ground, you don’t get them back,” said team leader David Bayless, Loehr Professor of mechanical engineering in Ohio University’s Russ College of Engineering and Technology. “If you don’t capture the value for the public now, you don’t get it back.”

Although the industry—which uses a technique called hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” to extract natural gas from deep within the region’s natural shale formations—experienced high growth in the first few years of the decade, in 2014 it hit a slow down as oil prices sank. But as the industry is expected to make a rebound, Ohio University researchers hope to take advantage of the lull to re-examine how Appalachia can do a better job of keeping more wealth in the region when the drilling resumes.

Bayless will lead three projects that aim to get more value out of the region’s shale reserves and retain more jobs. His research team plans to develop two technologies that are aimed at increasing the amount of natural gas that companies can extract from shale. The geological formations are full of nanometer-sized pores that trap much of the resources, Bayless explained.

“The bottom line is that we want to get more product out of the wells that are already fracked so that the companies don’t have to frack more wells,” he said. “Ninety percent of the product is still under ground (when current methods are used). You only recover a small portion of oil or gas.”

In addition, researchers at the Institute for Sustainable Energy and the Environment will explore how to create a process to separate components of natural gas at the site of drilling that can be used for other applications such as in the plastics industry. Currently, gas products may be shipped far out of state to large manufacturing facilities that cost billions of dollars to build and maintain, Bayless explained. He would like to help develop a more economical solution that keeps the process and its jobs in Appalachia.

Jason Trembly, an associate professor of mechanical engineering in the Russ College of Engineering and Technology, also is working on these technologies, as well as leading the development of a technology that can convert wastewater from the hydraulic fracturing process into clean water on site. The process intends to reduce the need for companies to transport wastewater and inject it into wells for disposal.

Other pieces of the Innovation Strategy project are focused on monitoring and mitigating greenhouse gases emitted by the shale industry.

Srdjan Nesic and Marc Singer of the Ohio University Institute for Corrosion and Multiphase Processes will develop new tools for the shale industry that can help predict problems in gas pipelines. The tools will be designed to help companies reduce pipeline corrosion and the leakage of methane gas, an air pollutant.

Kevin Crist, director of the Ohio University Center for Air Quality, will use small aircraft to monitor the air for methane emissions from hydraulic fracturing operations. Remote sensing is projected to be more cost-effective than on-site monitoring.

A 3 percent rate of methane leakage is effectively higher than the greenhouse emissions from the coal industry, Bayless said. Recent studies have found leakage from hydraulic fracturing operations at as high as 6 to 11 percent, according to the team’s Innovation Strategy proposal.

“Methane is a huge greenhouse gas in terms of its ability to reflect infrared radiation,” Bayless noted.

In addition to developing new engineering processes and tools, one key piece of the Innovation Strategy project is focused on exploring and developing solutions for keeping shale industry wealth in the region. Scott Miller and Mike Zimmer of the Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs, in collaboration with Daniel Karney of the Department of Economics, will examine the manufacturing climate, public and economic development policy, workforce retraining programs and related issues that could help Appalachia leverage more benefits from the shale boom and position it for the post-shale economy.

“We’re managing 90 percent of the costs while only receiving 10 percent of the economic revenues,” in the current environment, said Zimmer, an executive-in-residence.

Miller will lead a study on why more manufacturing and production facility projects proposed for Ohio and surrounding Appalachian states haven’t come to pass. He and fellow researchers will examine factors such as infrastructure, regional supply chains, capital investment, policy, workforce training, technology and marketing.

Zimmer will work with local and state leaders, nonprofit organizations and the U.S. Federal Reserve Bank in Cleveland to explore how financial and economic development strategies can be used to reinvest wealth generated by the shale industry boom in Appalachian communities. In addition, Zimmer and colleagues will examine how communities can participate in workforce training programs that will help individuals currently employed by the shale industry more easily transition to other sources of employment in the future.

“We’d like to make the benefits of the shale industry not fleeting but more lasting so that if the shale market changes, we’ve created value that has a permanence, richness and depth that can transcend the boundaries of shale,” Zimmer said.

Other collaborators on the Innovation Strategy project include Elissa Welch of the Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs, Toufiq Reza of the Russ College of Engineering and Technology and Boujun Bai, a petroleum engineer at the Missouri University of Science and Technology.

Several members of the Ohio University team have worked collaboratively for more than a decade through the Consortium for Energy, Economics and the Environment (CE3), an early university effort to harness the interdisciplinary power of engineers, scientists, policy analysts and economic development professionals to develop innovative solutions for issues in the fields of energy and environmental remediation. Like other teams, the Innovation Strategy process prompted those longtime collaborators to expand the scope of their work to faculty and staff with additional areas of expertise.

“Being really familiar with (our collaborators’) work allowed us to say, ‘I know they have this capability. What if we did this?’” Bayless said. “Innovation flows from that when you have that deeper understanding of what they do.”