Students’ water conservation idea earns them a trip to national competition

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Last fall, BP challenged student teams across the country to provide their best technical solutions to a real-world energy problem. The company made it clear: proposals should be practical, innovative, bold and original. One Penn State team, Aquam, Inc., rose to the challenge, and the trio of aspiring engineers will travel to Houston in April to compete in BP’s national Ultimate Field Trip (UFT) Competition.

Now in its third year in the U.S., the UFT Competition is one of the many ways BP works with universities to support STEM education initiatives and provides students with opportunities to explore energy industry careers.

Participants in this year’s contest were asked to identify and develop a novel technical solution that will reduce the amount of water utilized or find an effective use for water produced from BP operations.

Cassidy Newman, a sophomore in mechanical engineering, said the team opted to address the former. “We could choose to solve this problem for any of BP’s processes, so we went with hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking.”

According to BP’s website, fracking is the process of pumping water underground, mixed with a small proportion of sand and chemicals, at a high enough pressure to create small cracks in the rock. These cracks help to release natural gas that would otherwise not be accessible.

Alan Johnson, a sophomore in chemical engineering, said, “We had to select a site for our solution to be implemented, so we picked Pennsylvania. Fracking is very prominent in the areas between West Virginia and New York because of the large amounts of Marcellus shale. However, our method also can have a global impact because fracking is a viable option in many different regions.”

Egor Ivanov, a sophomore in mechanical engineering, explained, “Right now, fracking uses anywhere from two to eight million gallons of water, and this is for just one of the 15 to 20 fracturings completed per well. This water is either lost into the ground, contaminating groundwater with its many chemicals, or the water that is recovered is shipped off to injection wells, which are often very expensive to drill. Unfortunately, this water is lost forever and cannot be reused.”

The solution Aquam, Inc. proposed involves combining nitrogen with the water that is pumped into the ground. Ivanov elaborated, “After the water-nitrogen mixture is injected, it will come out with the oil. The oil is then separated from the mixture and the nitrogen is released into the air. The water that’s extracted will be used for forward osmosis, which purifies the water so it can be used again.”

He said the ratio of nitrogen to water needed for the solution will depend on how deep the solution needs to go. “The deeper the rocks, the harder they are to break, so more pressure is needed. Our process allows us to vary the amount of nitrogen in the mixture from 50 to 95 percent, depending on the depth of the rock. This significantly reduces the amount of water used in the fracturing.”

Newman said they are brainstorming ways to have nitrogen as well as oxygen available on the fracking site, but “there are challenges to transporting and holding it there, one challenge being oxygen’s flammability."

Even if we don’t win, this was a great experience.

— Cassidy Newman,
mechanical engineering student

Johnson said it’s important to note that other companies have separately considered aspects of Aquam, Inc.’s idea before. “Our proposal is unique in that we are integrating methods of on-site generation of nitrogen with foam fracking technologies.”

Ivanov added, “The generation of these gases is common in large-scale operations, but has not yet been implemented in such small scales.”

After presenting their proposal against four other Penn State teams in January, team Aquam, Inc. was selected to move on to the national finals April 9 and 10 in Houston. The team was thrilled to win after all the hard work they put into the challenge.

Newman spent hours researching what happens during the fracking process, so they could better understand how to come up with a viable solution.

Ivanov said the team also had to submit a cost-benefit analysis, which was difficult because they are proposing a solution that has never been done before.

After the semi-final competition, the team was paired with Natalie Palmer, a chemical engineer at BP, who is serving as Aquam Inc.’s adviser. Newman said Palmer is helping the team address potential pitfalls with their solution that they haven’t considered.

The trio is working on fine-tuning their solution and presentation before competing in Houston against teams from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Rice University, Texas A&M University, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the University of Oklahoma and the University of Texas.

When asked what compelled them to compete in the BP UFT Challenge, all three students said it’s a great opportunity to learn more about the energy industry.

Ivanov plans to work at Shell this summer and Johnson will complete an internship at Procter and Gamble.

Newman, who will spend her summer at Boeing, stated, “My grandfather owned oil rigs in Bradford, Pennsylvania. It’s in my blood.”

They joked that the free trip to Houston may have also been a draw.

The teammates believe their success at the semi-final competition is due, in part, to their history of knowing each other.

Newman explained, “We all attended Parkland High School in Allentown, Pennsylvania, and now we’re all in the Schreyer Honors College. We do a lot together.”

The national winner of the U.S. BP UFT Challenge will join the winning teams from the U.K., Canada and Angola on a two-week field trip to BP’s natural gas operations in Trinidad and Tobago.

Newman said, “Even if we don’t win, this was a great experience.”

A complete list of teams competing at the national competition in Houston, as well as their proposed solutions to the challenge, is available at http://tiny.cc/vyhvtx.      

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Last Updated February 19, 2015