Noteworthy & New
Celebrating And Investing In Research At SMU
Huffington Endowment Boosts Earth Sciences
One of SMU’s oldest and most
distinguished academic departments
has new resources to support
its research and teaching,
thanks to a gift of more than $10
million from the Honorable Roy
M. Huffington of Houston, who died July 11. The gift endows the
Department of Earth Sciences in SMU’s Dedman College, now
renamed the Roy M. Huffington Department of Earth Sciences.
Earth sciences research at SMU has achieved international
recognition in the areas of seismology, experimental petrology,
geothermal studies and paleoclimatology, which integrates stable
isotope geology, sedimentology and paleontology. Currently, research
projects of the Earth Sciences faculty have external funding
totaling more than $4 million from agencies including the
National Science Foundation, National Geographic Society, Petroleum
Research Fund of the American Chemical Society, U.S.
Department of Defense and U.S. Department of Energy. Research
sites include Asia, Arabia, Africa, Australia, Antarctica, Pacific
Islands, the Americas and Europe.
Major Earth Sciences research facilities at SMU include:
- Geothermal Laboratory – the major repository for
geothermal resource data in the United States.
- Hydrothermal Laboratory – can simulate subsurface conditions
and fluid-rock interactions to a depth of eight miles.
- Seismology and Infrasound Program – specializing in
seismo-acoustic arrays and the sources of earthquakes, an integral part of the U.S. nuclear test detection efforts.
- Shuler Museum of Paleontology – major repository of vertebrate
and plant fossils from North America and significant
holdings from Africa, Asia and the Middle East.
- Stable Isotope Laboratory – center for studies of hydrogen,
carbon and oxygen isotopes of fluids and rocks with
applications to Earth’s major cycles, including ancient and
“An expanding need for earth science professionals has resulted
from increased environmental concerns and other growing demands,”
says Paul W. Ludden, SMU provost and vice president
for academic affairs. “As SMU has responded to previous national
needs, we are poised to prepare the next generation of earth scientists
to address new national problems.”
Oil, Gas And Geothermal Energy: The New Dynamic
SMU’s nationally recognized geothermal
energy team provided an alternative energy
“how-to” forum in June, demonstrating
how oil and gas producers can
breathe new life into low-producing wells
and generate low-cost electricity by tapping
the “nuisance” hot water generated
by drilling operations.
The Geothermal Energy Utilization
Associated with Oil and Gas Development
Conference, the third SMU geothermal/oil and gas conference,
attracted a record 220 participants. Although geo-thermal
scientists, inventors and developers have dominated previous
events, the 2008 conference drew larger numbers of participants
from the oil and gas industry who are seeking ways to enter the
alternative energy market.
“For the first time we also had significant participation by endusers
who are pushing the geothermal community to determine
ways to make geothermal projects happen,” says Maria richards,
SMU Geothermal Lab coordinator and conference organizer. “They
want to buy the renewable resource for their projects.”
A highlight of the conference was the formal announcement by
the U.S. Department of Energy of its “Enhanced Geothermal
Systems Research, Development and Demonstration” funding
program, which will award $10.5 million in fiscal year 2008, with
an additional $79 million in funding anticipated over fiscal years
2009 and 2010. SMU’s geothermal team will compete for a share
of the funding, partnering with various companies and individuals
to submit projects and proposals, Richards says. The conference
was a natural fit for the University: Half the nation’s active oil and gas land rigs are located in Texas, and SMU’s geothermal scientists
are the acknowledged experts in this emerging field.
Although geothermal energy often is associated with large, hightemperature
hydrothermal power plants, the technology exists to
draw clean, affordable power from lower-temperature water. For
example, the process of pumping oil and gas frequently brings
with it waste fluids that carry substantial heat to the surface from
areas of unusually hot rock. The installation of a binary pump at
the wellhead can produce enough energy to run the well, mitigating
production costs for low-volume wells.
In addition, an oil
field full of geothermal pumps could be linked to distribute surplus
electricity, at a profit, to outside users.
SMU researchers have documented large amounts of hot water
that Texas oil and gas producers must reinject into the ground at
considerable expense. In West Texas, for every barrel of oil produced,
nearly 100 barrels of hot water are co-produced.
The idea of using CO2 instead of water as a heat and oil extraction
mechanism drew much discussion. A power plant using this
method would be carbon negative, says David Blackwell, SMU’s
W.B. Hamilton Professor of Geophysics. But the geothermal and
oil and gas industries can succeed with either fluid.
Blackwell and Richards were part of an 18-member panel assembled
by MIT in September 2005 to evaluate the potential of
geothermal energy becoming a major energy source for the
United States by 2050. Blackwell and Richards also developed the
Geothermal Map of North America, released by the American
Association of Petroleum Geologists in 2004.
The SMU Geothermal Lab is partially funded by a grant from
the Texas State Energy Conservation Office (SECO) for geothermal
outreach and networking. The goal of this program is to
increase geothermal awareness among Texas residents and development
of additional geothermal projects in the state.