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Building the Impossible

September 5, 2017
woman using equipment in a lab
Elizabeth Barsotti

Petroleum engineering graduate student Elizabeth Barsotti is helping build what was once deemed impossible.

By Micaela Myers

Elizabeth Barsotti considers the Air Force her hometown, as she moved as often as her mom’s stations shifted. But after graduating high school in Cheyenne, she dreamed of returning to Wyoming.

Barsotti completed her associate degree in California, then transferred to the University of Wyoming for her bachelor’s in petroleum engineering. It wasn’t long before she knew she wanted to pursue research and her Ph.D.

Barsotti took an undergraduate class with 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 that class, she heard about one of his research projects and circled and highlighted it in her notes—dreaming of working on such an exciting endeavor. Two weeks later, she was invited to join the team.

“I study what we call nanocondensation or capillary condensation,” Barsotti says. “Essentially, I’m studying how gas is stored in shale and other unconventional oil and gas reservoirs.”

The pore diameters in these types of reservoirs are on the order of a few nanometers—1,000 times smaller than the diameter of your hair and similar to the molecular size of the gas that’s stored there.

“Our hypothesis is that due to the comparison of the size between the gas molecules and the pores, that the pore walls actually affect the behavior of the gas differently than you would see in a conventional reservoir,” she says. They are working to understand these differences, which have important real-world implications for the oil and gas industry.

Barsotti’s research required equipment that didn’t yet exist. “There wasn’t a ready-made apparatus that we could use. Everyone out there said it would be impossible,” she says. “Professor Piri gave me all the tools to build our own apparatus. To be able to do something called impossible is really cool to me. Now we’re working on patenting it.”

Three such apparatuses are now located in UW’s High Bay Research Facility, along with a variety of other specialty equipment. “The High Bay brings together all aspects of the research—from atomic-scale imaging up to huge medical CT scanners,” Barsotti says, crediting Piri with the ingenuity and drive to create industry partnerships that help fund the facility. “We have this really novel equipment that allows us to study things that nobody else can.”

Barsotti never dreamed she’d be pursuing her doctorate and working in a facility like the High Bay when she first chose UW. She says, “It’s without a doubt the best decision I made.”

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