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Focused Energy Solutions

The need for practical, economical, and environmentally sound energy solutions has never been more urgent. The Energy & Environmental Research Center (EERC) has a strong energy research heritage in conducting applied research and development in pursuit of real-world solutions to pressing energy and environmental issues for clients worldwide.

As energy sources and needs have changed, the EERC’s facilities have grown and changed with them. In recent years, the EERC’s market has focused more on oil and gas. The Center has analytical capabilities suitable for determining key properties of subsurface rocks and materials used throughout the petroleum industry and laboratory facilities, expertise, and experience to perform all scales of materials analysis and reservoir characterization.

Just as EERC research scientists and engineers work together in teams, the laboratories collaborate on the work they do. The EERC has over 47,000 square feet of state-of-the-art research facilities. Twelve laboratories are housed in the EERC complex: the Analytical Research Laboratory (ARL), the Applied Geology Laboratory (AGL), the Environmental Chemistry Laboratory, the Environmental Microbiology Laboratory, the Fuels Analysis Laboratory, the Fuels and Materials Research Laboratory, the High-Temperature Materials Laboratory, the Mercury Research Laboratory, the Natural Materials Analytical Research Laboratory (NMARL), the Particulate Research Laboratory, the Process Chemistry and Development Laboratory, and the Water and Wastewater Treatability Laboratory. Not all are currently involved with oil and gas projects.

“Although we provide focused solutions in all energy areas, the market has grown in the last few years from one focused primarily on coal, emission control, and renewable energy to include oil and gas production and carbon capture, utilization, and storage,” said Senior Research Manager Beth Kurz, who oversees the laboratory facilities serving the Oil and Gas Group.

“An example of how work has changed in the labs is the NMARL. The NMARL offers analytical services designed specifically to address engineering problems in a wide range of fields. For many years, the NMARL was primarily focused on coal, looking at coal slag deposits. The lab still does a lot of work in those areas, but we’re doing a lot more work now in terms of characterizing geologic samples as they relate to oil and gas applications, which will lead to a better understanding of oil and gas reservoirs and the implications for oil and gas production,” said Kurz.

Development of one of the largest unconventional oil and gas plays in North America is occurring in North Dakota and Montana, with oil from the Bakken and Three Forks Formations being produced at over 800,000 barrels a day. It is estimated that there are hundreds of billions of barrels of oil in these formations, and development is expected to continue for at least another decade. While the development will ultimately enhance national energy security, it will have challenges.

Today’s oil and gas exploration and production projects begin with detailed applied research and characterization, whether the purpose is to revitalize vintage oil fields or enhance oil production from unconventional reservoirs. Past EERC evaluations have focused on assessing petroleum systems throughout the Williston, Denver– Julesburg, Alberta, and Powder River Basins. Specific assessments have focused on the determination of proppant strength and conductivity, mechanical rock properties, petrophysical characteristics of rocks, and chemical effects of rock and fluid interactions. In each case, EERC researchers have worked with industry and government partners to provide results of site-specific evaluations conducted at multiple scales of examination.

The NMARL offers analytical services designed specifically to address engineering problems in a wide range of fields. Analytical facilities combined with an experienced team of researchers provide a full range of advanced materials characterization and data interpretation using scanning electron microscopes equipped with x-ray microanalysis, quantitative chemical analysis, image analysis, and mineral phase mapping; x-ray fluorescence (XRF); and x-ray diffraction (XRD), including quantitative phase analysis and clay-typing analysis.

Several current EERC oil and gas projects involve the revitalized Bakken Formation and the Three Forks–Sanish Formation. The AGL’s advanced applications can characterize the formations for well drilling, stimulation or hydraulic fracturing of the surrounding rock, and well completion. The AGL looks at the porosity (spaces between grains) and the permeability (the ability of liquid to flow through the spaces) of rocks. Because the Bakken Formation is primarily very tight rock with very low permeability and low porosity, the nature and geometry of fractures formed in the rock during hydraulic fracturing are important to allow the oil to flow from the rock and into the well. The fractures will close up unless held open by proppants such as sand or ceramic beads, which allow the oil to flow better and for a longer period of time. Thus the nature and strength of proppants are also important areas of study.

The AGL has the equipment and the ability to perform geomechanical and petrophysical testing to determine the basic physical and geochemical characteristics of rocks. Geomechanical testing capabilities include uniaxial compression, triaxial compression, consolidation or constant rate of strain testing, Brinell hardness, fluid analysis, optical mineralogy/thin-section analysis, and batch reaction exposure studies. Petrophysical testing capabilities include porosity/bulk volume/grain volume/grain density, permeability to air and water, optical profilometry, cloud point, geological interpretation, and fracture analysis.

The ARL provides quality data, flexibility, and rapid turnaround time in support of research activities at the EERC. The lab employs standardized and novel analytical procedures to determine major, minor, and trace constituents in a wide variety of sample types: fossil fuels, biomass, combustion by-products, geologic and plant materials, groundwater, high-TDS (total dissolved solids) reservoir brine, and wastewater.

“A number of years ago, the EERC was heavily involved in several water projects, primarily to determine the effect that agricultural chemicals had on groundwater,” said Carolyn Nyberg, manager of the EERC ARL. “Water testing is again at the forefront of our work, but now it’s in support of oil and gas and carbon capture and storage projects.”

For example, groundwater and surface water analyses are being performed to better characterize the water in the vicinity of an oil field. The Plains CO2 Reduction (PCOR) Partnership is monitoring and studying the injection of over a million tons of CO2 a year into oil fields as part of its mission to assess the viability of carbon capture and storage underground. The water analyses are done as part of the project’s monitoring, verification, and accounting (MVA) program to ensure that the CO2 remains stored underground in the target injection zone.

The Environmental Chemistry Laboratory has conducted groundbreaking work toward understanding the chemistry of water and carbon dioxide under reservoir conditions. This knowledge along with other laboratory and CO2 storage research activities helps to provide solutions for CO2 enhanced oil recovery (EOR) and storage markets.

As the oil and gas industry continues to grow in the region, EERC laboratories will continue to work jointly to conduct a multitude of standard and nonstandard tests designed and implemented to exceed client needs. From microscale electron microscopy through macroscale core evaluations, the EERC has the capabilities and know-how to address the research needs of the petroleum industry.

For more information on the EERC laboratories, click here.