Every Grain of Sand: Shale gas and Hydraulic Fracturing

We all hear about shale gas being the next big thing in energy, but what is it?  The quick retort is that it’s gas in shale, but what does that mean? The gas is a natural gas so it is a series of hydrogen and carbon linked in gaseous forms.  This includes gases like methane and ethane, but what about the shale?

Shale Rock

Shale is a type of rock with a low permeability mix of mud, clay, and other minerals such as quartz.

If natural gas hits a shale layer as it migrates to the surface, it can become trapped in the shale.  A shale play is an area where shale gas is being produced or where companies are looking for shale gas.

The shale plays are located through out North America.  The Marcellus play covers 600 miles throughout the Appalachian Basin.  It ranges from New York, through West Virginia, and down to Tennessee and could contain 500 trillion cubic feet of natural gas (about the energy equivalent of 83 billion barrels of oil).  The Barnett shale formation is in north central Texas.  It spans from Montague to Hamilton and Jones to Dallas Counties, with one of the major concentrations located in Tarrant County. The Barnett may hold 30 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.

Shale gas is considered an unconventional resource which means that to extract the gas there needs to be more done than simply putting in a vertical well.  To get the best bang for the buck, you need to drill through the shale formation horizontally and then add force and pressure to break up the shale.

Shale gas is a great example of how new technology and a new way of looking at old things can bring about great change.

Shale gas wells have been in production since the 1820’s, but because it was too expensive to remove the gas from the shale, we let it lie.  Because of the properties of shale, production of shale gas wells remained extremely low up to the begging of the 21st Century.  By then technology and economics had caught up with the resource.

Natural gas is mainly used to create electricity and heat. In colder climes, the use of natural gas to create heat varies inversely with the outside temperature (as it gets colder more gas is used to make the inside of my house warmer). The natural gas used in power generation has consistently gone up every year.

US Natural Gas Total Consumption

Natural gas also burns much cleaner than coal.  From 2000 to 2009, gas from shale went from 1% of the total gas production in the United States to 14%.  That’s a huge jump in just a few years.

In 2005 the United States imported 15% of the natural gas it consumed.

It had been predicted that by 2030 we would increase imports to 20%, but because we knew where to find the shale gas, the necessary technology matured, and the economics came into line, by 2030 we should be importing only 1% of the natural gas we use.  In fact there is enough gas in all the different plays to last us 150 years at 2009 consumption rates.

With any new technology there are always concerns that it could negatively affect the environment.  The largest concerns come from the way the shale formation is broken up in the well.  Hydraulic fracturing, commonly called fracking (not be confused with other types of frack, is a process that uses a solution almost entirely of water which applies pressure to the rock and causes it to break.   If you have paid any attention to the news, you’ve probably heard of some controversy over fracking.  There are concerns that fracturing the shale formations is allowing the groundwater to become contaminated.  Some water wells and groundwater that are near shale gas wells have become contaminated with gas and other chemicals that are used in the shale gas well.

This, however, seems to come from improper well completion, spills on the surface, and evaporation of hydraulic fracture fluid that was open to the environment. None of this contamination comes from the fracking. Shale gas occurs well below ground water and aquifers.  An aquifer may run down as much as 600 ft or more, but the shale gas is another mile or more below that.  However the EPA is currently conducting tests on different wells, both gas and water, to see what is really going on. Their report is scheduled to be out at the end of the year.

Another concern is the amount of water it takes to frack a well. It can take up to 5 million gallons of water to finish one well.  If the well has poor access to local water, then the water will have to be trucked in from elsewhere.

Should we allow the fields of this resource to lay fallow?

Should we rush in and irresponsibly develop the resource?  The answer to both is “no”.  It is an energy source that we will need to maintain and improve our lives, but we should be mindful and develop it responsibly.  As we harvest the plays, we must make sure that we are not creating even more problems down the road.  Shale gas will play an important role in our energy, environmental and political future.

The Emancipation Proclamation is coming to a museum near you.

There is a very brief window of opportunity, from Thursday, Feb. 16 to Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2012, to see the original Emancipation Proclamation on display at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. Currently the museum is hosting an exhibit on the Civil War, entitled Discovering the Civil War. This exhibit, organized by the National Archives of the United States, went on display in Washington, DC to commemorate the sesquicentennial of the start of the war. It is now touring and Houston is the third stop on the tour.

Emancipation Proclamation Display
Emancipation Proclamation at HMNS!
Thursday, Feb. 16 – Tuesday, Feb. 21 ONLY
9 am – 9 pm

The premise of the exhibit, aside from remembering the Civil War, is simple and straightforward.

Since 150 years have gone by, nobody alive today has any personal recollections of the war. The question then becomes: “Where would one go in order to learn more about the Civil War?” One of the most logical answers is to go to the enormous collection of Civil War materials stored at the National Archives. Anyone interested in this topic will be glad to know that extensive portions of the Archive’s Civil War holdings are accessible online.

At the Houston venue, the topic of the Civil War is covered in three different ways, all part of one large exhibit. The largest footprint is taken up by the National Archives display. This is the traveling portion of the show, entitled Discovering the Civil War. One can see documents and photographs related to issues like the reasons for the war, raising an army, resigning one’s commission, letters home, medical care (or lack thereof), and a copy of the Emancipation Proclamation. The other two sections do not travel and will be on display in Houston only.

Discovering the Front Line: Highlights from the Nau Civil War Collection takes the storyline into the realm of three dimensions. Here the visitor can see an extensive selection of uniforms, weapons, photographs, drawings, a very rare Confederate medal and other Civil War memorabilia from the John L. Nau collection. What struck me the most in this part of the exhibit is a display of a small Bible with a bullet hole in it. One can see the point of entry as well as the point of exit, on the side of the book. It is very likely that the owner survived being shot.

A small third component dedicated to the history of a Union warship, the USS Westfield, closes out the exhibit.

Originally a Staten Island ferry, the Westfield was acquired by the US Navy to serve in the West Gulf Blockading squadron. The ship took part in the attack on New Orleans, bombardment of the ports of Indianola and Port Lavaca ending up sinking on January 1, 1863 during hostilities blockading the port of Galveston.

The main portion of the exhibit, however, is the story of the Civil War as told through documents held at the National Archives. Within the array of documents, the one with the greatest historical importance would have to be the Emancipation Proclamation. Most visitors will get to see a copy; those who make it during the few days outlined above, will get to see the real thing.

While the Proclamation on display was signed on January 1, 1863, about six months earlier, in July 1862, President Lincoln read his “preliminary proclamation” to his Cabinet. On September 22, 1862, after the Union victory at Antietam, the President announced that if the rebels did not end the fighting and rejoin the Union by January 1, 1863, all slaves in the rebellious states would be free.

On December 30, 1862, work started on the final draft of the document.

The draft President Lincoln worked with on December 31 is considered the final draft. The principal parts of the document are written in the President’s hand. This final draft also shows an early version of “cut and paste,” as two paragraphs from the Preliminary Proclamation were clipped from a printed copy and pasted on to the final draft, in order to “save writing”.

In the early afternoon of Thursday, January 1, 1863, President Lincoln signed the document and by late afternoon the document was ready for transmission to the press (including the Washington Evening Star) and others. By about 8 PM, the transmission of the text over the telegraph began. From this point forward, the Civil war had the dual purpose of preserving the Union and ending slavery.

The original Proclamation normally resides in the National Archives in Washington, DC. The document is five pages long; initially all of these pages were tied with narrow red and blue ribbons, which were attached to the signature page by a wafered impression of the seal of the United States. Most of the ribbons remain, as do parts of the seal.

Emancipation Proclamation
Emancipation Proclamation at HMNS!
Thursday, Feb. 16 – Tuesday, Feb. 21 ONLY
9 am – 9 pm

What exactly did the Emancipation Proclamation mean?

It is perhaps easier to say what it did not do: it did not end slavery in the nation. Specifically, it did not set free slaves in those areas where the United States could not enforce the Proclamation.

In other cases, local laws and decisions had already set some slaves free. New Mexico repealed its slave code in December 1861 (Foner, 2010: 204). In 1862 the District of Columbia freed the slaves within its jurisdiction; the Proclamation did not make a difference either way in the District either.

What the Proclamation did make possible was for “such persons of a suitable condition [to be] received into the armed service of the United States to garrison forts, positions, stations, and other places, and to man vessels of all sorts in said service”.

President Lincoln recognized that it would take a Constitutional Amendment to abolish slavery.

This ended up being the Thirteenth Amendment. The Senate debated and passed this Amendment on April 8, 1864. The House of Representatives, however, initially rejected it. President Lincoln then took a more active role and suggested that the Republican Party include in its platform a plank calling for the abolition of slavery. The House of Representatives finally passed the Thirteenth Amendment on January 31, 1865. On February 1, 1865, President Abraham Lincoln signed a Joint Resolution submitting the proposed Amendment to the states. On December 18, 1865, Secretary of State William Seward issued a statement verifying the ratification of the 13th Amendment.

“It actually came to us.”

When the document was displayed at the Henry Ford Museum, thousands of people lined up to come see it. What impressed a young visitor the most was this: “It actually came to us. That we did not have to go all the way to Washington DC to see it. It came to us.”

I am sure that sentiment will be shared by our visitors – young and old – as they take in this historic document.

Reference
Foner, Eric
2010 The Fiery trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery. W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., New York.

HMNS Expansion Update: Finishing Touches From 2011

The push to finish the construction of the Duncan Family Wing is getting underway, and for the most part the visible progress starts to happen on a smaller scale than it has thus far.

View of the west façade of the new wing, fully visible from San Jacinto now that the tower crane has been removed!
View of the west façade of the new wing, fully visible from San Jacinto –
now that the tower crane has been removed!

One big exception to that statement was last month’s removal of the tower crane from the west side of the building. The task required the use of another giant, but mobile, crane to lift each piece of the tower crane up and over the new building, into the delivery driveway for additional disassembly, and finally onto several flatbed trucks to be carted back to the crane’s winter home in Florida, Arizona, or South Padre.

Hundreds of feet of pipe circulate chilled and hot water throughout the new wing, including these pipes taking water to and from the rooftop air handling units.
Hundreds of feet of pipe circulate chilled and hot water throughout the new wing,
including these pipes taking water to and from the rooftop air handling units.

Throughout the rest of the building, final finish details are being completed.

Mirrors have been hung in the restrooms. The stairwells are getting coats of warm gray paint. Door handles and light switch covers and illuminated exit signs are being installed. Sensors for lights, sink faucets, and toilet flush valves are functioning, albeit at times a bit over-sensitively. (I involuntarily flushed a toilet from a distance of five feet earlier this week.) All are going in now so the contractor can fine tune the details so they really shine when the building opens to the public.

The third floor is almost ready for exciting new exhibits… and maybe some Saturday Night Fever?
The third floor is almost ready for exciting new exhibits…
and maybe some Saturday Night Fever?

Much of the detail work this month is happening in the three areas where the new wing will connect with the existing museum at the Wiess Energy Hall, the Herzstein Hall of Special Exhibits, and the McGovern Hall of the Americas. The finishes, meaning wall and ceiling materials and flooring even lighting, are a little bit different at each “tie-in” area because the spaces in both the new and old wing are a little bit different on each floor. The design team and contractor have worked to carefully coordinate the varying field conditions with distinct operational requirements to make each of the tie-in spaces both functional and beautiful.

The site on the west side of the project is being graded in anticipation of landscaping in the coming months.
The site on the west side of the project is being graded
in anticipation of landscaping in the coming months.

I can’t wait to share the finished product in the coming weeks.

Be sure to check out this month’s flickr set for more details on the project’s recent progress.

Save The Date: GEMS on February 11, 2012!

We had a terrific time at the Girls Exploring Math and Science event last year on Saturday, February 19, 2011. The Museum was buzzing with lots of learning – songs about kinetic and potential energy, buzzing instruments made with straws, Popsicle sticks and rubber bands, and lots of “ah-hah” moments throughout the day!

We had a fabulous presenting sponsor in KBR and two of their engineers were our featured speakers, Rachel Amos and Elaine Jimenez. Rachel and Elaine shared with the GEMS attendees a bit about their careers in Mechanical Engineering with KBR, their education, some tips for aspiring young engineers and scientists, and even a little about what they loved about math and science as kids. Interactive booths were hosted throughout the building by students, girl scout troops and local organizations and companies – there was so much to learn everywhere you turned!

Girl Scout booths have just been accepted for GEMS 2012 and there are some exciting topics and new ideas I’m very excited to see.

We’re still accepting applications from School Groups for booths and if you’re just now considering hosting a booth with your friends or opening it up to your class for extra credit it’s time to get some brainstorming going!  

What is a topic you’d like to know more about? What have you recently learned that you would want to share with your peers?

Here are a few links to sites that might inspire you for your awesome GEMS booth! Applications for school booths can be found online here at the HMNS website.

The Library of Congress – Everyday Mysteries

PBS.org’s Zoom for kids  – this link is to the engineering section but they offer lots more if you click around

How Stuff Works – go ahead – ask how it works!

Penn State College of Agricultural Science – Food Science

Exploratorium.edu - so many cool things to explore!

I’m also including some fabulous outcomes provided by some of our super star 2011 presenters, the “Truth in Numbers” group and the Rice University Association for Women in Mathmatics both presented booths on the topic of statistics and asked visitors to participate in their experiments pulling samples and recording results!

We can’t wait to see what everyone comes up with for GEMS 2012!

Visitors were asked by the Rice University Association of Women in Mathmatics to open a funsize bag of M&M's candies and chart how many candies of each color were included.