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Ryan Johnson, Published December 14 2012

NDSU teams up with supercomputing leader on research to boost energy development

FARGO – A research agreement signed by President Dean Bresciani on Friday could give North Dakota State University a key role in boosting energy development in the Oil Patch of western North Dakota.

Bresciani was joined by Penrose Albright, director of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, Calif., to officially enter into a collaborative agreement that will have the two entities pool their expertise and high-tech capabilities on research and development projects using advanced computers.

Albright stressed this work would produce more than just new research. The facility he oversees with a staff of about 7,500 is “very much a mission-driven laboratory” that looks for real-world implications, he said.

Hydraulic fracturing to recover oil is one example, he said. The process requires using a proppant, a material that will keep a man-made fracture open while the oil is removed.

Albright said research to develop a better, safer proppant requires finding “very, very tailored” properties and chemical reactions of the materials, and the traditional research method would rely on testing out many ideas to find the few that merit more work.

“This is the kind of thing you can do on a computer,” he said. “You can design these properties, you can develop them, you can test them on a computer and then narrow down to a very, very small fraction of concepts and then finally deploy them in the field in an experimental capacity.”

Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., said the latest numbers from the U.S. Geological Survey estimate the Bakken shale formation that includes North Dakota’s Oil Patch has 200 to 400 billion barrels of oil, with just 5 percent of that recoverable by current technology.

Research on new proppants and better recovery methods could boost recoverable reserves to 10 percent, doubling the oil that could be collected here to help the nation become energy independent, he said.

“You’re talking now about 20 billion barrels of oil, so that’s exactly the kind of technology that we can help develop and drive with this supercomputing,” Hoeven said.

Albright said collaborating with NDSU also could help streamline the research process in other fields, such as creating new medications and high-tech products, which could reduce the need for years of animal and cell culture testing and speed up new developments.

Bresciani said the agreement with “one of the gemstones” of the nation’s research facilities will help NDSU become an even bigger player in research with important implications.

“The application of that research is what’s particularly exciting,” he said. “It’s exciting for the state of North Dakota; it’s exciting for our nation; it’s exciting to think about the opportunity for energy independence that is not possible without major research facilities and major research organization collaborating in this way.”


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Readers can reach Forum reporter Ryan Johnson at (701) 241-5587