For three and a half years, Jon Yang has walked through the doors of the National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL) in Oregon to contribute to a growing body of knowledge about a geologic landmark thousands of miles away: the Marcellus Shale Formation.
Yang, who anticipates graduating in 2016 from Oregon State University with a Ph.D. in ocean, earth, and atmospheric science, conducts research at the lab as part of NETL’s Professional Internship Program (PIP) administered by the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE). The program helps to expand undergraduate and graduate students’ knowledge in their field of study while exposing them to new areas of applied research.
Yang, who holds an undergraduate degree in chemical engineering from the University of Arizona, sought out a research opportunity he could use as a springboard for a graduate thesis. After some encouragement from his thesis advisor, Dr. Marta Torres at Oregon State, he applied and was accepted into the PIP program.
“My project was fairly unique and specialized. Troubleshooting problems was enlightening and informative, so it provided a good technical base for future opportunities in academic research or industrial positions,” said Yang, who conducted research both at NETL and the W. M. Keck Collaboratory for Plasma Spectrometry facility at Oregon State.
At NETL, Yang studied the vast bed of Devonian shale buried in the Northeast for clues to its chemical makeup and behavior. Embedded in the sedimentary rock—formed from the buildup of plants, minerals and other organic matter over time—are immeasurable quantities of liquid hydrocarbons, created as a byproduct of decomposing matter. While industry has tapped these energy reserves to fuel America, scientists like Yang have honed in on another valuable resource in the Marcellus Formation: rare earth elements.
Rare earth elements have certain magnetic, luminescent, and electrochemical properties that make them popular choices in numerous real world applications, like TV screens and lasers. For Yang, they served as clues to the complex geochemical processes at play thousands of feet below the surface during a certain type of natural gas extraction known as hydraulic fracturing.
“I studied how rare earths accumulate in the shale in the first place and how geochemical processes such as the cycling of phosphorus in the sediments impact the accumulation of rare earths,” he explained. “Specifically, one of the goals for the project was to understand geochemical processes that occur during shale gas drilling and to evaluate the potential of rare earth elements as tracers of these processes.”
To understand the complex geochemistry that occurred between the shale and the fracturing fluid, he reacted Marcellus shale injected with 30 percent synthetic fracturing fluid and 70 percent brine in a high-temperature and high-pressure environment in the High Pressure Immersion and Reactive Transport Laboratory. He then observed the changes in the chemistry of the reacted fluids, with a particular focus on the concentration of dissolved rare earth elements.
“The results of my research can give the scientific and industrial communities a better understanding of the geochemical reactions occurring during shale gas operations. This information may in turn help inform future scientific endeavors investigating potential environmental concerns with hydraulic fracturing,” said Yang. “Additionally, trace metals like the rare earth elements are becoming increasingly valuable for their uses in technology and electronics. Understanding how these rare earths cycle within black shale systems may help exploration for potential sources of rare earths.”
Yang, who is part of a team of researchers led by his mentor Dr. Circe Verba, will be submitting the research in the Journal of Natural Gas Science and Engineering. Aside from this anticipated publication, Yang has gained a few other takeaways from the PIP.
“Designing and setting up the experiments was definitely a worthwhile experience in which I was able to learn valuable technical skills,” said Yang. “I have learned and grown tremendously as an academic researcher and scientist.”
The National Energy Technology Laboratory research program is administered through the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE), which is managed for DOE by ORAU.