EMS professors, couple to research Colombian shale through Fulbright awards

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — What are the odds that two Penn State professors married to each other are able to both receive Fulbright awards for consecutive semesters in the same country?

For Luis Ayala and Zuleima Karpyn, luck seemed to be on their side.

Ayala, William A. Fustos Family Professor in Energy and Mineral Engineering, and Karpyn, professor of petroleum and natural gas engineering, both applied for the Fulbright-Colciencias Innovation and Technology Award from the Fulbright Program with the hopes of one of them landing the opportunity to conduct research in Colombia for a semester.

Karpyn and Ayala, both FCMG Co-Chairs in Fluid Behavior and Rock Interactions, will participate in the Fulbright program in the fall 2016 and spring 2017 semesters, respectively.  

The U.S. Fulbright Program offers competitive, merit-based grants for students, scholars, teachers and professionals, and aims to create mutual understanding among the many cultures of the world. The program is world-renowned for producing accomplished scholars. The Fulbright-Colciencias Innovation and Technology Award is designed specifically for fundamental and applied research in Colombia.

“We wanted to use the Fulbright award to make a difference professionally as teachers and researchers,” said Karpyn, who is also the Quentin E. and Louise L. Wood Faculty Fellow in Petroleum and Natural Gas Engineering.

Colombia’s unconventional shale resource

Native Spanish speakers, the two Penn State professors chose Colombia, which neighbors their home country of Venezuela.

With the advent of new technology, unconventional natural gas has become easier to access and extract. In the U.S., shale is a well-known unconventional oil and gas resource, and some of Penn State’s campuses are located above one of the largest natural gas reserve in the world, the Marcellus Shale.

In Colombia, researchers are discovering their own gas shale deposits.

“They see the resource as an opportunity to research and develop a new energy,” said Ayala, who is also associate head for the John and Willie Leone Department of Mineral and Energy Engineering’s graduate program. “These shale deposits could provide economic benefits, political stability, and energy sustainability and independence.”

La Luna Shale

Karpyn’s research will focus on the characterization of La Luna shale, located in the Middle Magdalena Basin in central Colombia, and she will compare it to Eagle Ford Shale, a U.S. shale play of similar age found in Texas. She will be working with professors and students from the National University of Colombia (UNAL) and EAFIT University, two of Colombia’s prestigious universities.

“With help from the petroleum engineering program at UNAL, we will be able to study rock properties of La Luna shale, such as porosity and permeability, and use our research to work toward Colombia’s goal of energy independence,” said Karpyn.

Karpyn values the importance of international collaboration through programs like the Fulbright.

“I believe that cultural awareness and mutual understanding are paramount for solving global challenges, and to be able to use my roots and professional knowledge in this way gives me a great sense of purpose,” she said.

Creating a shale database

Ayala’s research focuses on computer modeling of hydrocarbon behavior and gas well performance. He plans to work with students and faculty colleagues from UNAL and Universidad de los Andes (UNIANDES) to gather data from Colombian shale plays. Then, they will compile the information into a database that they will use to create a model that can help guide decision-making for the Colombian energy industry.

“We’re trying to optimize the way in which Colombian gas companies extract unconventional resources by sharing what we have learned in the U.S.,” said Ayala. “These models will have long-term impacts on Colombia’s energy industry as it continues toward its goal of becoming energy self-sufficient.”

Global collaboration

In addition to research, both Ayala and Karpyn will teach courses in their respective fields. They hope that this experience will enhance their teaching at Penn State through collaboration with graduate students from both the U.S. and Colombia, as well as offer students from both countries new perspectives on the extraction of unconventional resources.

“Our research will enrich the experiences of our Penn State students and could open their eyes to collaboration opportunities,” Ayala said. “These opportunities serve to further Penn State’s vision of global leadership and to foster important relationships with other countries, which is crucial for international growth and stability.”

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Last Updated August 22, 2016