Doctoral student builds high-pressure testing lab to meet research needs

Travis Tasker, a doctoral candidate in environmental engineering at Penn State, wanted to study what happens deep underground during oil and gas extraction. The problem was that the department didn’t have the proper equipment for the undertaking. Tasker decided to change that.

“One of the challenges in studying what is happening in the deep subsurface during oil and gas extraction is that the pressures are extremely high (>4,000 psi),” Tasker said. “There is no way to perform experiments at these pressures without having the appropriate equipment.”

As part of his master’s thesis research, Tasker studied reactions between hydraulic fracturing fluids and Marcellus Shale with a high-pressure vessel lent to him by James Adair, professor of materials science and engineering, biomedical engineering and pharmacology.  After completing his master’s work, Tasker and several engineering faculty members at Penn State realized the need for having multiple, corrosion resistant systems that could be used to perform experiments at elevated pressures.

In the fall of 2014, Tasker started to explore the costs of purchasing new high-pressure and temperature (HPT) testing equipment by requesting quotes from various companies. Once the quotes were in, environmental engineering faculty members Bill Burgos and Chris Gorski and chemical engineering faculty members Monty Alger and Darrell Velegol submitted a grant proposal to the College of Engineering Instructional and Research Equipment Grant Program for funding to purchase it.

Together, they were able to secure funding to build a new HPT testing facility in the Sackett Building.

“The College of Engineering selected our proposal for funding because they saw the value of the equipment in supporting and expanding research opportunities in the area of unconventional oil and gas,” Tasker said.

Once the $100,000 was obtained, Tasker contacted high-pressure equipment manufacturers and began to weigh the pros and cons of products from various vendors. Eventually, he decided on a company that had the best high-pressure equipment for their research needs. 

He also ordered additional parts from other vendors including a gas booster pump for pressurizing the equipment to 5000 psi, a high-pressure manifold for distributing gas flow to the three vessels, fittings, tubing and gas cylinder pressure and flow regulators.

“The fun part was when all the equipment arrived,” Tasker said. “There was a lot of gas plumbing and wiring that had to be done, but I really enjoyed it. It was a learning experience.”

Tasker worked with David Faulds, the civil and environmental engineering laboratories supervisor, to incorporate safety features into the design.

“We installed overhead gas venting and remote desktop equipment monitoring to increase safety,” Tasker said.

Peg Van Ornum, multimedia and computer specialist, and Bob White, manager of network and information systems, set up the software and remote desktop to monitor the equipment conditions away from the lab in an effort to increase safety by reducing interactions with the equipment while pressurized.

“I am really, really thankful for everyone who helped me with purchasing and installing the equipment,” Tasker said. “I couldn't have done it without them.”

The HPT testing facility was finished in December and will now be used by a variety of researchers at Penn State.

“The HPT lab will be very beneficial in studying high pressure and temperature environments; particularly, oil and gas systems and how to increase gas recovery from shale formation or how to decrease water pollution associated with oil and gas extraction,” Tasker said. “However, there are a lot of other research opportunities including carbon dioxide sequestration, well casings and cements, stimulation proppants, water-rock interactions, hydraulic fracturing fluid degradation/transformation kinetic experiments among others.”

Building the HPT testing facility taught Tasker how to work and communicate with vendors and colleagues to produce a product that has all the necessary capabilities and functions needed for research. It also taught him how the process works at the academic level.

“The new lab has everything that researchers need to conduct good research,” Tasker said. “I am excited to see what innovative and informative research we can gather from using it.”

Last Updated January 13, 2016