UW innovation center combines research labs

The University of Wyoming has sharpened its scientific edge in the energy field with the help of the $25.4 million Energy Innovation Center.    

The building is home to the growing School of Energy Resources and is becoming home to firsts in the energy field.

The building, which hosted a grand opening in September, is a product of cooperative evolution between the public and private sectors. While $12.5 million came from match funding from the state of Wyoming, the rest came from energy-industry donors, with several pouring millions of dollars into the facility.

Mark Northam, founding director of the School of Energy Resources, said he has been at the University of Wyoming for seven years, of which four have been spent funding and building the school’s new home. He said the plans for the building metamorphosed through the planning process as private support locked into place. One entire lab changed direction, he said.

That $11 million lab is the Hess Digital Rock Physics Laboratory. According to Northam, Hess Corp. put in almost $5 million for instrumentation in a facility that would help study how oil, gas and water move through tight and conventional reservoirs. But the equipment needed a home, so the school repurposed what would have been an oil and gas lab, giving birth to a world-leading lab that can examine rocks on a macro, micro and nano scale.

“To the best of my knowledge, there is no petroleum engineering research group in academia, in the world, that has integrated these three laboratories and is covering such a wide range of scale in their research,” said Mohammed Piri, an associate professor of chemical and petroleum engineering who pilots the lab.

Northam said many outdated assumptions have prevailed in the oil and gas sector and in universities concerning the physics of underground flow. He said understanding the physics better will lead to better outcomes.

“Can we exploit it so we can get more of it to move and come out the hole?” he said. “The hard part is creating that understanding.”

Now, he said, recovery rates on unconventional reservoirs such as the Bakken and Niobrara are low – about 10 percent.

“I guess that’s our holy grail right now is being able to impact those kinds of reservoirs,” he said. He classified UW’s work in the field before the lab’s arrival as “seven years of major breakthroughs” that are complex, yet important to engineers who stimulate fields.

Underground flow is only one facet of research in the school, though. In another lab of the new building, UW is pioneering methods of coal conversion.

“UW is the first institution to produce ethylene glycol from coal,” said Maohong Fan, an associate professor of chemical engineering in the University of Wyoming’s Department of Chemical and Petroleum Engineering. He is utilizing the new Peabody Energy Advanced Coal Technology Laboratory to accelerate the research.

He said the ethylene glycol – extracted from Powder River Basin coal – could be used directly as antifreeze or be refined further into diesel fuel or other fuels. Throughout the process, he tries to use material unique to Wyoming to enhance the process while making it cheaper. He said the side effect is that more Wyoming people could be employed to develop Wyoming’s coal into other resources.

Northam said there’s high demand for ethylene glycol – whether for antifreeze, industrial applications or more mundane things such as paint – and it can be safely transported by rail or truck. Fan also said it’s possible natural gas could partially substitute for the synthesis gas from PRB coal to use yet another Wyoming feedstock to produce ethylene glycol.

“This facility … is a game changer for the coal-to-liquids facility,” Fan said.

The school deals with a lot of abstract concepts, many of which seek to visualize things happening deep underground. For this reason, the university invested in 3-D visualization hardware that can input users digitally into an underground reservoir, for instance.

“By visualizing in the center we can use a number of techniques to better simulate what the models tell us,” Northam said. The school’s 3-D visualization facilities were “primitive” a few years ago, he said, prompting a $2.5 million investment in the CAVE – the Cave Automated Virtual Environment. The four-walled room measuring 10 feet per side projects images on the walls and floor through which a user literally can walk – as long as he doesn’t collide with the actual wall.

The CAVE has “a more or less direct link” to a supercomputer, allowing it to perform as needed. For now, access is free, and Northam said he hopes to keep it that way by providing compelling research out of the lab.

“If we keep it free, more people will use it and we would very much like UW to be in the forefront of the next level of breakthroughs,” he said. More than 100 investigators would like to use the facility for everything from wind-farm turbulence models to air-quality modeling, he said.

However, it might be the technology itself that gets the biggest boost from UW efforts.

“Our No. 1 goal is to improve technology for 3-D visualization,” Northam said. The university has been working on using flat-screen 3-D televisions to create a miniaturized version of the $2.5 million equipment at a fraction of the price. He said the flat-panel TV version would cost more in the neighborhood of $100,000 while providing a similar experience. The school will publish its findings with what it calls the mini-CAVE and make that available to outside researchers.

“The outcome will be cheaper technology that people can use in their own office,” Northam said. “We’re not intending to go into the business, but we’re working on software and hardware that reduce the cost but retain as much information as possible.”

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