UW Energy Initiative Attracts Top Graduate Students for Important Research

August 2, 2012
Man working in lab
Robert Drapeau, graduate student in UW’s Department of Ecosystem Science and Management, is analyzing water and soil samples taken from two coal-bed methane discharge ponds in Campbell and Sheridan counties to assess soil conductivity. Drapeau is one of more than a dozen outstanding graduate students recruited under UW’s Energy Graduate Assistantship Initiative. (UW Photo)

After earning a bachelor’s degree in earth science from Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago, Robert Drapeau knew he wanted to further his study of the interaction of surface water and groundwater.

Meanwhile, at the University of Wyoming, Thijs Kelleners, assistant professor in the Department of Ecosystem Science and Management, was looking for a graduate student to help with his research on the impact of ponds created by coal-bed methane discharge water in the Powder River Basin.

When Kelleners saw Drapeau’s graduate school application – one of five the Illinois native submitted to programs at universities across the country – Kelleners had a good idea he’d found the student he was looking for. Drapeau’s high score on the Graduate Record Examinations (GRE), combined with his specific area of interest, put him at the top of Kelleners’ list.

“I chased him a little bit,” recalls Kelleners, a six-year member of the faculty of UW’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources. “I had this funded project, and I really needed the student. He seemed like the perfect guy.”

After being personally contacted by Kelleners, Drapeau “found out this project was almost exactly what I was looking for. I wanted to go somewhere different, and I decided this was the best place for me,” he says.

He enrolled in UW’s graduate school in 2011 and has spent the last year immersed in research on a topic of great interest to the coal-bed methane industry in Wyoming.

It didn’t hurt that Kelleners had an attractive stipend to offer for Drapeau’s graduate assistantship. Drapeau is one of more than a dozen UW graduate students recruited under UW’s Energy Graduate Assistantship (GA) Initiative. Funded with a $6.2 million appropriation of Abandoned Mine Lands funds by the 2011 Wyoming State Legislature, the nationally competitive stipends and fellowships are attracting new students to UW who might otherwise attend other institutions.

The initiative also is driving important research in energy sciences that will pay dividends for Wyoming. Working in four UW colleges and the School of Energy Resources, the graduate assistants are studying topics that include natural gas production economics, storage of different types of energy, carbon dioxide storage, enhanced coal technologies, wind farm design and enhanced oil recovery.

“The energy GA initiative affords UW the opportunity to support important energy-related projects while raising the stature of graduate education by recruiting outstanding incoming graduate students,” says Andy Hansen, associate provost for undergraduate and graduate studies. “The initiative also represents a significant contribution to UW’s drive toward developing a Tier 1 engineering program with a focus on the unique needs of Wyoming.”

Hansen says the caliber of energy GA applicants has exceeded expectations. This year, the average GRE score of newly recruited students ranks in the top 15 percent nationally.

“That’s a pretty lofty percentile for the average,” he says. “A number in the top 25 to 30 percent would’ve been good.”

Drapeau scored particularly strong in mathematics, which plays an important part in his research. Upon completion of the laboratory measurements, he will use a math-driven computer model to predict the impact of the measured soil conductivities on flow and transport under coal-bed methane discharge ponds, to assist industry and others in assessing environmental impacts. 

Kelleners explains that, in order to produce coal-bed methane, producers pump large amounts of groundwater to the surface -- much of it held in ponds. That water tends to contain high levels of sodium, which affects soil properties. The question is whether the conductivity of soil under those ponds is changed to the point that it seals up. Sealed-up ponds protect the shallow groundwater from contamination by the pond water, but may harm animals that drink from the ponds because of the pond water constituents becoming concentrated over time.

Drapeau has taken water and soil samples from two ponds in Campbell and Sheridan counties, and is assessing soil conductivity in the soil physics lab of the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources on campus. While the project is expected to last another year, both Drapeau and Kelleners have been surprised to find, so far, that coal-bed methane discharge water isn’t significantly affecting the infiltration properties of soil.

“We were expecting to see a much bigger impact,” Kelleners says. “It kind of contradicts what we’ve seen in the other literature so far.”

CO2 and wind

In the College of Engineering and Applied Science building next door, UW energy GAs are involved in research that will help the oil, coal and wind power industries.

Xiao Wang, a Ph.D. student in chemical and petroleum engineering, is assessing the suitability of underground rocks from sites in Wyoming for carbon dioxide storage, which is seen as key to the future for the state’s coal industry. Pumping CO2 underground also is an important tool for enhanced oil recovery.

Wang was recruited from the China University of Petroleum by Vladimir Alvarado, associate professor in UW’s Department of Chemical and Petroleum Engineering. He credits her with helping design a unique capillary pressure system that will provide great insights for industry regarding CO2 storage and oil reservoir stimulation.

“She’s been a wonderful addition,” says Alvarado, who came to UW in 2006. “She’s performing superbly. To do this kind of research, you need top students. And to recruit those top students, you need a good retention package.”

In the Department of Mechanical Engineering, another energy GA, Chris Gundling, is in his third and final year of research for his Ph.D. He is focusing on wind farm design. A graduate of the University of California-San Diego and Georgia Tech University in aerospace engineering, he was working for General Electric when he met UW Professor Jonathan Naughton, director of the Wind Energy Research Center in the School of Energy Resources.

Intrigued by UW’s work on wind turbine blade design and wind farm siting, Gundling decided to pursue his Ph.D. at UW.

“I knew there was a big need in this area: For wind energy to be competitive with other forms of energy, it needs to get cheaper,” Gundling says. “One of the ways to do that is to make it more efficient.”

Working with Assistant Professor Jay Sitaraman in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, Gundling has used computer modeling to develop more efficient wind farm designs, taking into account factors including topography and atmospheric conditions.

“Our goal has been to make something actually useful for the industry,” Gundling says. “We’ve made some really good progress.”

Gundling says UW’s wind energy research is “top class,” and that the university is among a handful in the country leading the way to help the industry become more efficient. He says that’s appropriate in a state with world-class wind energy resources.

Hansen says the Energy GA Initiative has the potential to drive innovation in all areas of Wyoming’s wide array of energy sources.

The work also is personally satisfying for the UW faculty members who’ve recruited top graduate students through the initiative.

“I have an interesting project and a good student. Who could ask for more?” Kelleners says.

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