EMS student’s paper wins first in SPE contest, advances to international final

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — A paper written by Michael Cavazza, a Schreyer Scholar majoring in petroleum and natural gas engineering, won first place in the Eastern North America regional Society of Petroleum Engineers (SPE) student paper contest, held April 9 at Louisiana State University. Cavazza will advance to the final, international round of the contest, which will be held Sept. 26-28 at the SPE Annual Technical Conference and Exhibition in Dubai.

His paper, “Hydraulic Fracturing could Result in Cleaner Streams in Pennsylvania,” also won first place in the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences’ William Grundy Haven Paper Competition.

Hydraulic fracturing, or ‘fracking,’ is a technique used to extract oil or gas from deep underground reservoirs. Companies often use millions of gallons of water in the process for each well they drill. Acid mine drainage is currently the main pollutant of surface water in the mid-Atlantic region. Most acid mine drainage comes from abandoned wells and has degraded more than 5,500 miles of streams. Cavazza’s paper explores whether recycling flowback by mixing it with acid mine drainage could result in a water acceptable for the fracking process, which could improve water quality in streams.

Cavazza’s interest in acid mine drainage started before he came to Penn State.

“My dad is the director of the Bureau of Abandoned Mine Reclamation for Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection. He deals with acid mine drainage every day at work, so I grew up knowing about it,” said Cavazza, a native of Indiana, Pennsylvania. “I’m a petroleum engineering student, so I tried to find a way to relate my Schreyer research project to hydraulic fracturing.”

During fracking, a mixture of chemical additives and water is injected into underground shale formations. A portion of the fluid, known as flowback, returns to the surface. To increase efficiency, companies sometimes mix fresh water, which could come from nearby streams, into the flowback fluid and reuse the mixture in future fracking operations. Replacing this fresh water with acid mine drainage, Cavazza argues in his paper, could keep clean water in streams and reduce the volume of acid mine drainage entering streams.

The paper is the result of many months of work Cavazza completed for his Schreyer honors thesis. Advised by Li Li, associate professor of petroleum and natural gas engineering, Cavazza conducted research on the chemical processes that take place when mixing acid mine drainage and flowback fluid. Mixing the two fluids results in a precipitation reaction, which, if properly controlled, can reduce the contaminates in both and produce a water suitable for fracking operations.

In addition to getting feedback from his faculty adviser, Cavazza made contacts with many industry representatives from around the state. He conducted interviews with a host of individuals and incorporated their feedback into his project — which he said was one reason the paper was so successful.

“This recognition is a good feeling because I put a lot of work into the research and the paper, but a lot of people have put effort into this project as well,” he said. “I see this award as group recognition. The fact that I can write about it, present the work and achieve success is nice because it shows everyone’s work in the end.”

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Last Updated April 27, 2016