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EMS Energy Institute Seed Grants

In Spring 2019, the EMS Energy Institute announced a new call for seed grant proposals to encourage exploratory and collaborative research with new ideas that will likely advance energy science and technology significantly and potentially lead to new externally funded research projects. The following three areas were considered:

  • Energy production and upstream research, including conventional and unconventional resources, and enhanced recovery of conventional and unconventional resources
  • Energy utilization and downstream research, including conversion and upgrading of energy involving new concepts and novel processes, renewable energy utilization, and carbon dioxide management, including carbon capture, utilization, and storage.
  • Energy systems, materials, and energy techno-economics

Nine proposals were submitted and were evaluated by a panel of senior faculty members according to the following criteria: concept and rationale; objectives, approach, and expected results; and team qualifications and collaboration. The EMS Energy Institute selected four proposals for seed grants in May 2019 for one year of funding with the possibility of renewal for a second year depending on the results and planned future work. However, due to the pandemic, all seed grants were granted an additional year. Each of the following seed grants received $15,000 from the EMS Energy Institute. 

Energy production and upstream research

Title: Mapping Reservoir Rock Composition of Conventional and Unconventional Deposits with Intelligent Imaging
PI and Co-PI: Zuleima Karpyn (College of Earth and Mineral Sciences and the EMS Energy Institute) and Sharon Huang (College of Information Sciences and Technology, and Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences)

Overview: The proposed project aimed to advance hydrocarbon production from conventional and unconventional reservoirs by developing novel machine learning and image analysis tools to enable automated, three-dimensional mapping of mineral constituents in reservoir rocks using high-fidelity X-ray microtomography imaging. Results from this work will support improved representation and modeling of rock-fluid interactions affecting the mobility and trapping of oil, brine, and gas in complex geologic systems. This proposal also intended to stimulate new synergies between research groups in the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences and the College of Information Sciences and Technology and build research capacity at Penn State in the area of image data science, which can be transferrable to many fields interested in constructing material compositional maps.

Results: Pore-scale X-ray CT data of synthetic porous cores representing reservoir rock pore topology and two-phase fluid occupancy was developed.

Title: Exploring Nonaqueous Cryogenic Stimulation and Its Application in Gas Shale Reservoir to Maximize Gas Production and Minimize the Environmental Footprint
PI and Co-PI:  Shimin Liu (College of Earth and Mineral Sciences and the EMS Energy Institute) and Ming Xiao (College of Engineering)

Overview: The shale gas revolution has dramatically changed the energy landscape of North America. Despite this enormous success, significant technological challenges remain. To improve the gas production from underperforming wells, the researchers explored, investigated, and tested an innovative cryogenic stimulation technology on shale and quantified its effectiveness on gas production enhancement. The fluid dynamics behaviors of gas within shale is the key for success of this early and exploratory technology. The study presented an atomic-to-pore scale fluid dynamic study of shale gas reservoirs under nonaqueous cryogenic liquid nitrogen and liquid carbon dioxide treatments through a combination of experimental and numerical simulation approach. With a multiscale approach, combining experimental and numerical strategies, the fundamental mechanism of multiscale fluid-shale interactions under cryogenic treatment were uncovered and its impact on the long-term shale gas production was quantified.

Results: The repetitive applications of cryogenic treatment reduced macropore volume and increase mesopore volume. For the tested sample, the diffusion coefficient of the coal sample that underwent three cycles of freezing-thawing was lower than that of the coal sample that underwent a single cycle of freezing and thawing. The outcome of this study provides a scientific justification for the post-cryogenic fracturing effect on diffusion improvement and gas production enhancement, especially for high “sorption time” CBM reservoirs. In other core experiments for a gas-filled specimen, both the normal and shear fracture stiffness decrease monotonically with freezing time as more cracks are created in the coal bulk. For a water-filled specimen, ice formation due to cryogenic treatment leads to grouting of the coal bulk. Accordingly, the fracture stiffness of wet coal increases initially and then decreases with freezing time. A coalbed with higher water saturation is preferable when applying cryogenic fracturing because fluid- filled cracks can endure larger cryogenic forces before complete failure, and the contained water aggravates coal breaking as ice pressure builds up from the volumetric expansion of the water–ice phase transition and applies additional splitting forces on pre-existing or induced fractures and cleats. The researchers also confirmed the stiffness ratio is sensitive to fluid content. The measured stiffness ratio is 0.7–0.9 for dry coal but less than 0.3 for saturated coal. 

Energy utilization and downstream research

Title: Low-Temperature Plasma-Assisted Catalytic Conversion of Carbon Dioxide to Value-added Chemicals and Fuels
PI and Co-PI: Xiaoxing Wang (EMS Energy Institute) and Sean D. Knecht (College of Engineering)

Overview: To mitigate climate change, the reduction of anthropogenic carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions is of paramount importance. Catalytic conversion of CO2 to value-added chemicals and fuels is potentially an attractive and sustainable solution for mitigating CO2 emissions. The researchers sought to develop a new and more efficient process for catalytic CO2 conversion with hydrogen to chemicals and fuels with the assistance of low-temperature plasma. Through the research, the team gained deep insight on the physical and chemical aspects of CO2 and hydrogen dissociation/reactions in a dielectric barrier discharge plasma reactor; studied and identified the key parameters for plasma-assisted CO2 hydrogenation to improve the knowledge base in the plasma-catalysis scientific community; identified and clarified the synergistic effects of coupling non-thermal plasma with catalysis; and developed a catalyst that works effectively for the plasma- assisted CO2 conversion process. The work facilitates the development of new technology for catalytic CO2 conversion in a more energy-efficient manner.

Results: The results of this work demonstrated the significant impact of the catalyst-bed configuration on plasma-catalytic CO2 hydrogenation to higher hydrocarbons in one-step operated at low temperature and atmospheric pressure. With proper catalyst-bed configuration, high C2+ hydrocarbons selectivity of 46% at CO2 conversion of over 70% is achieved. C2+ hydrocarbons are likely formed through the plasma-driven gas-phase methane conversion. Thus, the key in optimizing the catalyst-bed configuration is the balance between methane formation and plasma reactions for carbon-chain-growth from methane. It should also be pointed out that the catalyst used in this work is a conventional alumina-supported Co catalyst for Fischer-Tropsch synthesis. With further optimization of Co catalyst and/or development of more effective catalysts, the plasma-promoted catalytic CO2 hydrogenation to higher hydrocarbons could be more promising. The present work may broaden the utilization of the plasma-catalyst synergy for effective CO2 conversion to higher hydrocarbons.

Energy Systems and Materials

Title: Graphene Production from Attrition Milling of Anthracite Coal at the Bench Scale
PI and Co-PI: Jonathan P. Mathews (College of Earth and Mineral Sciences and the EMS Energy Institute) and James H. Adair (College of Earth and Mineral Sciences and the EMS Energy Institute)

Overview: Anthracite micronization followed by a controlled hydrometallurgical processing (acid treatment and controlled attrition milling approach) was proposed to generate graphene at the bench scale using a scalable approach. Through careful selection of the anthracite and by controlling the milling process, it was expected that the graphene oxide produced could be engineered to meet graphene size needs. The abundant graphene components in anthracite also make this an inexpensive graphene source that has the potential to overcome the high cost that limits current use.

Results: During this investigation, anthracite coal was acid-treated and micronized in a multi-step process, the rheology of the reduced-sized liquid was followed as a function of milled and unmilled materials resulting in the proof-of-concept even with the limited data, however graphene was not generated due to restrictions/limitations/timing imposed by the pandemic.

Chunshan Song, former director of the EMS Energy Institute, retired in 2020 and a new director will begin in fall 2021. Future seed grant opportunities will be determined at that time.