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Fueling the Future: Using geological science to drive energy innovation

Tuesday, September 19, 2023

Media Contact: Harrison Hill | Senior Research Communications Specialist | 405-744-5827 |

Standing in a flower bed outside the Oklahoma State Capitol building is an oil well.

An iconic sight for Oklahomans, the well was placed on Nov. 10, 1941, and now serves as a reminder of the importance the energy sector has had on the growth of the state.

Dr. Camelia Knapp
Dr. Camelia Knapp

Although it was plugged more than 40 years later, the well is now considered a historic piece and is preserved as part of Oklahoma’s long history with oil and gas.

For Oklahoma State University, a modern-land grant institution deeply connected to the state and people of Oklahoma, this importance is not taken lightly. Energy research continues to be a focus area across campus, from the Boone Pickens School of Geology (BPSoG) to the College of Engineering, Architecture and Technology, and the Ferguson College of Agriculture.

“As a land-grant institution in an energy state, our school has traditionally been focused on oil and gas resources,” said Dr. Camelia Knapp, head of the BPSoG, professor of geophysics and V. Brown Monnett Chair of Petroleum Geology. “We are lucky that Oklahoma has such resources and a lot of our training here in the school traditionally was based around research for oil and gas. We have many dedicated alumni who are working in this area and now they are giving back to the school.”

Although geology is often thought of as studying rocks, it encompasses much more than that, and Knapp feels geologist is an old term not fully encompassing the modern role.

“It is from 300 years ago when geology started as a science, and that’s when geologists were going out and collecting rocks and analyzing them, but the field has expanded so much more,” Knapp said. “Really, we call ourselves geoscientists.”

Geoscience is not just rocks, it is all about solving physics of the earth, she said.

And that is exactly what they are doing.

“If you look at the history of Oklahoma, one might argue it has first and foremost been built around energy,” said Dr. James Knapp, professor in the BPSoG and Boone Pickens Distinguished Chair of Geoscience. “The legacy of energy in what is now the state of Oklahoma can’t be underestimated. That fits in naturally into what we can do as a land-grant university for Oklahoma — build on the long traditions that made the state what it is and are clearly a cornerstone for the state.”

Studying Sustainability

Issues with energy sustainability have been a topic of conversation for decades as it affects a lot of crucial areas.

Dr. James Knapp
Dr. James Knapp

“It ties into issues about mitigating climate change, it’s about providing affordable resources, especially in the developing world to advance their capabilities and quality of life and it also ties into how you most economically use those energy resources, along with water resources, for that matter, in all processes of producing food to feed the world,” James Knapp said.

A lot of that discussion is focused on how to transition to cleaner energy.

“Oklahoma is going through the same energy transition that is underway globally,” said Dr. Mileva Radonjic, associate professor of chemical engineering and the Samson Investment Chair in Petroleum Engineering. “However, due to large oil and gas infrastructure and vast amount of data and knowledge of subsurface, as well as technically capable workforce, energy transition that will require carbon storage, hydrogen production and storage and geothermal energy usage, can have successful implementation in Oklahoma.”

Solving this problem is not just for oil and gas wells, said Radonjic, who is also an adjunct faculty member in the school of geology, but for CO2 injection/storage and for geothermal and hydrogen energy as well.

“What makes this topic cool and exciting is that it requires a multifaceted approach, which brings together geology, materials science, petroleum and civil engineering, and flow through porous media, with geochemistry, materials chemistry and geomechanics too,” Radonjic said.

Room to Grow

The field of energy technology has grown rapidly over the years and so has research around it.

“Everyone is hearing more and more about energy transition. And our school has been really expanding,” Camelia Knapp said. “We like to call it energy integration.”

For the BPSoG, that growth looks like new concentrations added to the geology major including petroleum geology, environmental geology, pre-law and a secondary teacher’s certification as well as two new majors in environmental geosciences and geophysics and an accelerated master’s program. The school also added a professional science master’s in geosciences with concentrations in petroleum geosciences, hydrogeology and geophysics.

Dr. Mileva Radonjic
Dr. Mileva Radonjic

“We are trying to align our curriculum with our research interests,” Camelia Knapp said.

Every faculty member in the school is working on research relevant for the energy, water and climate nexus, Camelia Knapp said.

“They are all connected,” she said. “When we talk about energy primarily, we talk about subsurface energy, so natural resources, like oil, gas, coal and minerals. But our faculty do very comprehensive research.”

That research covers everything from traditional energy focuses to newer ideas like carbon capture and storage — looking at permeability and porosity of rocks that allow not only oil and gas but other fluids like CO2 to flow through, Camelia Knapp said.

“It is not only oil and gas right now,” she said. “CO2 capture and storage has become more widely available and basically the same types of geologic reservoirs that accommodate oil and gas are suitable for carbon dioxide injection and storage.”

Technology like carbon capture and storage are vital to developing a more sustainable energy system.

“Not many people know that more than 83% of the world’s energy consumption comes from oil, gas and coal,” Camelia Knapp said. “When you look at this global energy consumption, you really can’t turn a switch and say, ‘Oh, now we’re going to only start using wind and solar, and maybe geothermal.’ We need to find solutions for transitioning into a more renewable energy environment, but it’s not going to be overnight.”

That transition will take time of course, as energy is so vital to our world.

“I think there is probably very little that isn’t touched somehow by the energy piece,” James Knapp said. “On top of that, especially in the last few decades, we’ve seen the emergence of a lot of these green technologies that provide at least the prospect of diversifying how we produce energy and how we are responsive to issues.”

Creating Collaboration

For research across OSU’s campuses, collaboration continues to be a growing focus. In the energy sector, this is especially clear.

“A year and a half ago, OSU established the Hamm Institute for American Energy,” James Knapp said. “That’s sort of the centerpiece for OSU for the whole energy sphere. The way forward is going to be in supporting and collaborating with the Hamm Institute.”

That means his position as a faculty fellow for strategic initiatives is to get people together with different backgrounds and perspectives to have conversations bridge different theories.

“Collaboration is essential in solving major societal issues such as development of clean renewable energy resources,” Radonjic said.

Radonjic is currently leading a DOE funded project — Caney Shale Field Lab — which is one of the major funding grants in CEAT and the BPSoG, with combined value approaching $20 million.

“This was only possible when CEAT and the College of Arts and Sciences combined efforts and included several faculty members, postdocs and graduate students, in collaboration with Lawrence Berkeley National Lab,” Radonjic said. “We have a project that is as productive and competitive as any other university in the DOE NETL portfolio of shale projects.”

Radonjic and her collaborators also contributed to energy research by graduating students ready to join industry, academia and/or national labs, as well as supporting postdocs towards faculty positions, she said.

“I would say, this multilayered interdisciplinary effort is only possible in large collaborative projects,” Radonjic said. “Encouraging a culture of collaboration, exchange and ideation is critical and not always easy in academia, where we do have some silolike behaviors.”

While those silos can be detrimental to progress, OSU researchers are focused on avoiding them and instead are connecting across fields of research and focus areas.

“You can’t do comprehensive energy research in silos,” Camelia Knapp said. “You really have to work together. Because you need a geoscientist and you need an engineering unit, you need to incorporate environmental justice, so, you need to talk to sociologists. You have to get outside of your comfort zone and work with a larger team.”

Energy is one of the biggest issues worldwide, but it is more than just a problem.

“It’s not only a problem, it’s a global opportunity,” Camelia Knapp said. “I would say that with what is going on with energy transition and energy integration nowadays it really is a global opportunity.

“I just wish we could have a bigger voice as geoscientists to tell the new generations that this is an area where they have a future.”

Photos By: Gary Lawson and Benjamin Suter on Unsplash

Story By: Harrison Hill | Research Matters Magazine

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