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High Bay Research Facility: Building Capacity

September 5, 2017
science equipment and two researchers
Research scientist Fatemeh Salehilchoo (left) and Ph.D. candidate Tianzhu Quin examine the interfacial tension/contact angle (IFT/CA) measurement system. It is built to perform measurements under extreme conditions, such as those encountered in oil and gas reservoirs.

By Micaela Myers

Wyoming is famous for cowboys and wide-open spaces, but it’s also earning a place on the map for its cutting-edge research aimed at maximizing recovery from unconventional and conventional oil and gas reservoirs. That research is attracting funding and top talent from around the world to the University of Wyoming’s new state-of-the-art High Bay Research Facility.

The $68 million, 90,000-square-foot facility features flexible and high-bay laboratory space that houses the Center of Innovation for Flow Through Porous Media, the Improved Oil Recovery Laboratory, the Geomechanical/Petrology Laboratory and a Structures Research Laboratory. Designed by Malone Belton Abel, GSG and Zimmer Gunsul Frasca, the facility is a shared UW resource among the School of Energy Resources, the College of Engineering and Applied Science, and the Department of Geology and Geophysics. Located on north 19th Street near the Centennial Complex, the High Bay Research Facility celebrated its official grand opening in August. (Learn more about the partnerships and funding that made the facility possible on page 46.)

“The Center of Innovation for Flow Through Porous Media, the Improved Recovery Laboratory, and the Geomechanical/Petrology Laboratory will facilitate an integrated research effort at UW,” says Mark Northam, director of UW’s School of Energy Resources. “Our aspiration is to lead the world in creating new knowledge and schemes for significantly improving recovery factors for oil and gas reservoirs in all categories.”

The facility builds capacity, adding to existing facilities, such as the Energy Innovation Center, and looks at issues important to the state as well as the world.

“In the state of Wyoming, our average recovery of oil over a very long oil and gas history has been about 40 percent,” Northam says. “So 60 percent of all the oil that was ever discovered in Wyoming is still in the ground. While we’ll never get it all, we could go back and get a lot of it.”

The research taking place at the High Bay Research Facility will help industry understand and develop solutions to extraction issues such as this, in addition to related issues such as carbon dioxide (CO2) sequestration.

A Dream Is Born

Mohammad Piri, the Thomas and Shelley Botts Endowed Chair in Unconventional Reservoirs in the College of Engineering and Applied Science and a professor in the School of Energy Resources, was the driving force behind the building—helping shepherd it from concept to reality.

Piri realized that the theoretical work and modeling he did at Imperial College London and Princeton University had limited prospects in making a real-world difference because there were very few high-end experimental platforms that could be used to generate experimental data against which the theories could be validated. “Without the validation, nobody would trust the models or theories,” he says. At UW, he began developing needed facilities, including the College of Engineering and Applied Science Encana Research Laboratory and the Hess Digital Rock Physics Laboratory in the Energy Innovation Center. However, additional capacity was still needed.

“I thought a meaningful contribution would mean developing a research facility in which scientists can gather and test these ideas,” Piri says.

Northam remembers the facility’s genesis on a white board during a brainstorming meeting in 2010. “The thinking was all about how do we build capacity, how do we support the capacity, how do we attract the intellectual capability that we need to actually move this area of research ahead rapidly—and lead the world in our abilities to answer these really challenging questions that have plagued the oil and gas industry forever,” he says. “We realized that because the experiments take a long time, the only way to really do that was to generate a significant capacity in the laboratory, which is what the High Bay represents. So we drew a model on the board of what it would look like to support this.” The model included a vast network of researchers and industry supporters.

From that session, a proposal was written. Gov. Matt Mead and the state Legislature supported the concept. With state matching dollars soon in place, industry invested in the project, and the dream was well on its way to reality.

Collaboration and Innovation

The High Bay Research Facility is already drawing talented minds from around the world (see page 42.). It’s also home to state-of-the-art and one-of-a-kind equipment to enable its groundbreaking research (see sidebar and research feature on page 34). The facility itself was designed to foster this collaboration and innovation.

“This facility is really unique, in that it’s tailor-made for collaboration,” says research scientist and UW graduate Evan Lowry. Collaboration is fostered by having the labs and equipment in one place, as well as by the meeting spaces within the building.

The high-bay wing of the building features ceiling heights of 28 feet. Trucks can be driven into the facility, and it’s also outfitted with a 20-ton bridge crane.

“The High Bay allows us to work with real-world-sized samples and actually move them around safely without having to clear things out of the way,” Northam says.

The capabilities within the facility go from atomic-scale imaging to working with huge rock samples. “The beauty of being able to design this from the ground up with some purpose in mind is that you have a very high-tech analytical facility with CAT scans and electron microscopes that require a clean and vibration-free environment, and directly next door you have machine shops, rock and oil storage handling facilities and geomechanical research areas,” Northam says.

“Today, we have created a facility that not only provides really unique capabilities to enable multi-scale research on flow and transport in porous media but also provides massive capacity to conduct multiple studies, and that’s very powerful,” Piri says. “We are building a platform for talents from around the world to gather and collaborate and develop breakthroughs for some of the big technological challenges we face today: producing more hydrocarbons from conventional and unconventional reservoirs.”

College of Engineering and Applied Science Dean Michael Pishko says: “It helps establish us as a leader in being able to serve one of the most important industries in our state.”

The facility and equipment also have other applications. “The capabilities that we have established here are not just relevant to the study of hydrocarbon recovery from conventional and unconventional reservoirs but have direct relevance to other flow through porous media problems in different areas of science and engineering,” Piri says.

The facility’s capabilities could allow for further inquiry into subjects including groundwater supplies, carbon engineering, and CO2 sequestration.

“In the future, it opens up research beyond oil and gas that will also generate research income and sustaining dollars for UW,” Northam says.

Research at the facility will also take full advantage of other university and state resources, such as the NCAR–Wyoming Supercomputing Center in Cheyenne and the Shell 3-D Visualization Center in the Energy Innovation Center. The reconfigurable spaces inside the High Bay Research Facility mean it can rapidly adapt over time.

“We have established this unique platform to create a hub for scientists to gather and work together to create effective solutions,” Piri says. “I’m not aware of any other facility in the world that is able to provide these capabilities and the capacity we are providing here.”

State-of-the-Art Equipment

What makes the High Bay Research Facility’s capacity so impressive is the amount of novel and state-of-the-art equipment used in the groundbreaking research. “We tried to establish a platform that would provide a set of integrated experimental and computational capabilities as well as a significant research capacity from the meter scale down to atomic level,” says Mohammad Piri, the Thomas and Shelley Botts Endowed Chair in Unconventional Reservoirs in the College of Engineering and Applied Science and a professor in the School of Energy Resources.

In addition to a hybrid CPU/GPU supercomputing cluster, the Center of Innovation for Flow Through Porous Media’s experimental systems include the following:

Titan ETEM G2

Helios 650 FIB-SEM

Helios G3 FIB-SEM

QEMSCAN 650F

Nanocondensation Apparatus

Ziess UltraXRM-L200 Nano-CT Scanner

Ziess 510 Versa Micro-CT Scanner

Ziess Versa XRM-500 Micro-CT Scanner

FEI Heliscan Micro-CT Scanner

Miniature Multiphase Core Flooding Apparatus

Interfacial Tension and Contact Angle Apparatus

Macro-scale Core Flooding Apparatus

Micro-PIV

Gas Mixing Apparatus

High Pressure/Temperature Gas Chromatograph


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