Ohio State to Conduct Wide Range of Shale-Related Research

shale operation in eastern Ohio

Researchers to study ecological health, sustainability and biodiversity, including groundwater, surface water, air/soil quality.

COLUMBUS, Ohio – Ohio State University researchers have begun focusing their expertise on the shale energy industry in Ohio.

With the industry growing at a rapid pace in Ohio and around the country, Ohio State aims to produce research that can help inform policymakers, industry leaders and the public.

The university formed a research cluster with a $50,000 seed grant from the university’s Environmental Sciences Network in October 2012. The team, the Shale Environmental Management Research Cluster, has attracted about 30 Ohio State faculty members from four colleges across the campus: the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences (CFAES), the College of Engineering, the College of Public Health, and the College of Arts and Sciences. The group also includes researchers from the University of Toledo’s Department of Chemical and Environmental Engineering and several representatives from the U.S. Geological Survey’s Ohio Water Science Center, and is partnering with faculty from West Virginia University under a new shale energy partnership.

All of the Ohio State faculty in the research cluster are also part of the university's Subsurface Energy Resource Center (SERC), established in 2011 to provide research and policy guidance in the shale arena. The center now has more than 80 affiliated researchers who provide foundational expertise and integrate research efforts across campus to answer important shale-related concerns.

“The shale energy industry is moving very quickly, and there’s not really much science behind what’s happening and what impact it can have, good or bad,” said Zuzana Bohrerova, coordinator of the team and research specialist and associate director of Ohio State’s Ohio Water Resources Center.

According to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, Ohio had 215 horizontal wells drilled and 85 producing in 2012. Many more could be on the horizon: The department has now issued more than 850 drilling permits since 2010, a number that grows weekly. While not all permits will lead to producing wells, the department projects that the state will see markedly increased production as pipelines are installed and processing plants are completed.

“There is a lot of misinformation and a lot of fear that does not have a lot of science behind it. We want to work on getting more data, so there can be responsible decision-making around shale issues,” Bohrerova said.

Richard Moore, executive director of the Environmental Sciences Network and professor in CFAES’s School of Environment and Natural Resources, said the research cluster is doing just what the network had hoped. It draws upon the wealth of environmental expertise across the university.

“Very few of these faculty knew each other before they came together in this research cluster,” said Moore, who is also associate director for the university’s Office of Energy and Environment. “Before we formed the network, there really wasn’t a good way to find out about others doing environmental research on campus. These faculty members have tremendous potential if we can find ways to synergize their work.”

Team members have applied to the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the U.S. Department of Energy for nearly $13 million in funding for a half-dozen broad multidisciplinary studies involving ecological health, sustainability and biodiversity related to shale development.

Additionally, a major proposal submitted in June by Ohio State and West Virginia University to the Research Partnership to Secure Energy for America would engage many of the research cluster’s members in studies monitoring groundwater, surface water, air quality and soil quality at drilling sites in Ohio and West Virginia, Moore said. The proposal includes a study of the impact on ecosystems, including how farm animals, ground beetles and aquatic insects and fish respond to noise and light associated with hydraulic fracturing operations. Jeff Daniels, director of SERC, led the effort to write and submit the proposal. Research Partnership to Secure Energy for America has not yet announced a decision on proposals it has received.

Paula Mouser, assistant professor in the Department of Civil, Environmental and Geodetic Engineering at Ohio State, has already received NSF funding for two projects. In one study, she is examining the fluid and rock characteristics that affect the fate of fluids deep underground. Her lab is measuring the density, viscosity and biodegradation potential of the fluids used in the hydraulic fracturing process and those that return to the surface as flowback. As part of this research, she is collaborating with Dave Cole, professor of earth sciences and director of Ohio State’s Subsurface Energy Materials Characterization and Analysis Laboratory, to determine the permeability and porosity of Marcellus shale samples. Knowing these characteristics will help researchers understand the risk of fluid migration, using a model being developed by her collaborator George Pinder at the University of Vermont.

In a second NSF-funded project, Mouser is working with collaborator Desiree Plata at Duke University to identify the organic compounds present in hydraulic fracturing fluids -- both those that degrade relatively easily and those that do not.

“We’re looking at how fast these compounds degrade in the subsurface, from shallow groundwater aquifers down to deep subsurface brine reservoirs,” Mouser said.

With support from the Sloan Foundation Deep Life Observatory, Mouser is also tracking the dynamics of microorganisms going into and coming out of shale gas wells. Her observations to date indicate that only a few groups survive the hydraulic fracturing process because of the high temperatures, different chemical conditions, high salinity and high pressures encountered in the deep subsurface.

“Certain bacteria can wreak havoc on well infrastructure by producing scale products, corroding the wells or clogging the pore spaces in the deep subsurface,” Mouser said. “That’s why understanding the ecology and metabolic potential of microorganisms residing in these fluids is important.” She suggests that the oil and gas industry could reduce maintenance costs and improve gas recovery efficiencies by understanding how to reduce growth of these detrimental bacteria.

“Microorganisms may also be beneficial to the environment by degrading some of the chemicals that are used in the hydraulic fracturing process so they don’t move to shallower aquifers and pose a risk to drinking water resources,” she said.

While awaiting more decisions on funding proposals, research cluster members meet monthly to discuss progress on proposals and new ideas for further investigation. Those ideas include research such as:

  • How land use changes involving shale development could impact stream systems

Jon Witter, research assistant professor in the Department of Food, Agricultural and Biological Engineering in CFAES, studies how changes in land cover and land management impact water quality and quantity. The watershed could be affected when drill pads are constructed, roadways leading to drilling sites are built, and swaths of land are cleared for pipeline installation, Witter said.

“The water, the sediment and the nutrients it contains will run off differently, and that can impact both how much water gets in the streams and the quality of that water,” Witter said.

“So, it could have a profound impact on the water resources that are so important to the region. Fortunately, though, there are many best management practices to mitigate these issues, but they may need to be adapted for this specific purpose and setting.”

  • How shale brine discharged from oil and gas recovery operations could affect the growth and reproductive capabilities of wildlife

Konrad Dabrowski, fisheries professor in CFAES’s School of Environment and Natural Resources, would like to study zebrafish, a species used extensively as a model for monitoring (in captivity) the impact of pollutants over several generations. This type of study could help identify potential health and genetic hazards from pollutants, specifically from the chemical tetrachloroethane.

Dabrowski’s lab has previously improved rearing methods that allow researchers to obtain mature zebrafish from the larval stage within 75 days, thus allowing a study over three generations within one year, a relatively short period of time. In addition, this research would include testing of different diets to study if nutritional imbalances -- if the fish are low in vitamins, for instance -- could have an exacerbating effect.

  • How nanotechnology could be used to treat hydraulic fracturing wastewater

Shaurya Prakash, assistant professor in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, has already completed a project on using nanotechnology to remove salt from water, developing one of the smallest and most energy-efficient desalination units for seawater through a project funded by the U.S. Department of Defense. Now, he wants to investigate use of the technology on wastewater resulting from the hydraulic fracturing process, which, he said, poses a unique challenge due to the composition of the wastewater and will likely require new technologies for treatment to make water available for reuse.

“We need to look at the composition of the water and determine the constituents including any harmful materials,” Prakash said. “Then, we need to clean the water for reuse in the most environmentally friendly way, for the lowest cost possible.” 

Prakash has recently received an NSF grant for developing a portable nano-pump to test a novel approach for removing contaminants that are electrically charged from water. Such an approach may be helpful in treating hydraulic fracturing wastewater, which contains contaminants that are electrically charged. 

  • How new technologies can reduce the impact of contaminants from hydraulic fracturing

Linda Weavers’ interests lie in the fate of contaminants in the environment. “It’s related to some work I’ve done in the past with coal byproducts from coal-burning power plants,” she said. “The shale products are heavy metals, and there’s a lot of organics as well as inorganics from fracturing fluids that are being used. What can we do with these byproducts? What can we do to reuse them? How can we reduce the risk to ecosystems and to humans?”

Weavers, professor in the Department of Civil, Environmental and Geodetic Engineering, is also interested in working on new technologies and processes to remove contaminants and reducing the volume of water that must be disposed of in injection wells.

  • How to remediate the soil and environment after shale development and if accidents occur

For years, Nick Basta, professor in the School of Environment and Natural Resources, has studied heavy metals and other contaminants in soils and their effect on human health and the environment. Regarding shale development, he’s interested in a holistic approach.

“I would do two things,” Basta said. “First, the monitoring. You need to monitor before development starts to get a baseline, and then again afterwards. What kinds of impacts do you see just from normal operations, and how do you improve things if you see a problem? It would be good to see something funded comprehensively on that. The second aspect is, what happens if there’s a spill or another kind of accident?

“The biggest potential contamination I see with hydraulic fracturing is salt. The flowback from these operations is very salty, in some cases three, four or five times saltier than the ocean. People overlook salt, but salt on land is very, very damaging. What if there’s a spill?”

Basta’s contribution to such a study would focus on the environmental fate of contaminants associated with shale development and soil remediation, and restoration of drilling pad areas when they’re no longer being used and after spills or other accidents.

  • How drilling operations could affect wildlife health

Barbara Wolfe, clinical associate professor in the Department of Veterinary Preventive Medicine and the School of Environment and Natural Resources, specializes in wildlife health, stress and reproductive physiology.

“I’m interested in looking at large landscape impacts on habitat fragmentation and on the reproductive health, stress levels and avoidance behavior of domestic animals and wildlife related to drilling, and how these animal and environmental health impacts might be associated with human health,” she said. Wolfe is a key player in the College of Veterinary Medicine’s “One Health” initiative, which “allows us to look holistically at this technology and its impacts” on animal, human and environmental health concerns. 

  • How brine from shale operations could potentially be used in fuel cells to produce electricity

“This could very well be a happy synergy of technologies,” said Ann Christy, associate professor in the Department of Food, Agricultural and Biological Engineering. “My team has been working on microbial fuel cells since about 2003, with a two-chamber style.

“We have seen recently in the literature that some researchers have put a third compartment between the two chambers and filled it with brine, which makes the electrical current easier to pass between the cells. We weren’t sure this would be relevant for Ohio, given that we’re not near an ocean that would be a source of brine. But briny, brackish flowback water from shale operations could be something that would advance the bioelectricity side of our research, and could be part of the treatment train for these materials.”

  • How shale development could affect surface water quality and forest ecosystems

Elizabeth Toman, visiting assistant professor in forestry in the School of Environment and Natural Resources, has examined in the past how the logging industry’s intensive short-term use of rural roads not designed for heavy trucks and traffic multiplies the amount of dust and sediment from that road use, and how that affects nearby surface water quality. She would like to examine similar effects from increased truck traffic due to shale development.

“It’s the same problem, just a different industry,” she said.

Her background in forest fragmentation applies as well.

“The drill pads used in shale operations can be as large as three to five acres,” she said. “What’s happening with habitat if we make these land-use changes in these large blocks of area, throughout the landscape? How much of it is occurring in forested areas, and how much edge forest are we producing? The edge of a forest has a very different habitat than the interior, and that will have an impact on what species it can provide habitat for.”

Word of the Shale Environmental Management Research Cluster is getting around, said Maureen Langlois, a program manager who helps coordinate the Environmental Science Network.

“We’ve heard from representatives of federal agencies who say what we’re doing is needed, and that they have seen no other university group organized like we are,” Langlois said. “Ohio State is a powerhouse of environmental science, particularly in water and sustainability, and we have a lot of expertise in the engineering world that’s fully informed by the environmental sciences.”

Bohrerova said the group’s broad range of expertise allows it to address broader, more complex issues than the researchers working alone.

“And we are very open to new collaborations,” she said. “We started out as very water-oriented, but now are looking at broader environmental impacts of shale. A lot of people are very interested in research in this area.”


CFAES News Team
For more information, contact: 

Richard Moore

Zuzana Bohrerova