Imagine you’re strolling along a trail, winding through sagebrush.
It’s a beautiful bluebird day and you’re in Wyoming, so of course it’s windy. You take a step, hear a huge cracking sound, and the ground starts to cave in around your feet.
Suddenly you’re free-falling, careening through nothing, until a puddle of black, oily goop breaks your fall.
When Saman Aryana was young and he heard people discussing petroleum or hydrothermal systems in the ground, that sort of image came to mind: a large, swimming-pool-type body of fluid, lurking beneath the surface of the Earth.
“I would always be scared, thinking that if this thing caves in, I’m going to be floating in this humongous, dirty pool,” he said, admitting to having nightmares about it.
Aryana, an assistant professor of chemical engineering at the University of Wyoming, will speak at 6 p.m. Tuesday at Teton County Library as part of Geologists of Jackson Hole’s 2019 speaker series. A few years — and degrees — on from those early ruminations, the professor has come to understand what goes on beneath our feet a bit better. He also now knows that falling into one of those oily pits is incredibly unlikely.
After completing his undergraduate and masters in civil engineering at the University of Texas at Arlington, Aryana went on to earn his doctorate in energy resources engineering at Stanford University. He later arrived at the University of Wyoming, where he set about developing the university’s microfluidics lab.
“I was looking for venues to build up my research capacity,” he said. “It took about three years to learn it, figure it out and set up the lab. Now we use it to address different questions related to the subsurface.”
Aryana’s discussion will focus on his research into microfluidics, which is a way to model the flow of fluids that occurs within the rocks beneath our feet.
“It’s important for us to have intentional and meaningful conversations with the public,” Aryana said, “so that they have a more informed understanding of these subsurface systems that contribute so massively to the economy.”
One aspect of Aryana’s research has to do with the potential for using underground saline reservoirs to store carbon dioxide, the petroleum fuel byproduct largely responsible for human-induced climate change. If that gas is captured before it reaches the atmosphere — in the stacks of coal plants, for example — it can be pumped into the ground, beneath layers of impermeable rock that prevent it from escaping to the surface.
The other side of Aryana’s research centers on using carbon dioxide for a different purpose. When pumped into petroleum-bearing rocks, the gas can make oil and natural gas wells more productive, helping to squeeze out every last drop.
There may seem to be an inherent tension between studying how to get more carbon dioxide out of the ground and how to put it back in, but Aryana said the reason to do both boils down to economics.
“We need to work towards a carbon-neutral economy,” he said, “but at the moment that’s not the reality.”
One way to start building synergy toward a net-zero economy, he said, is by using extractive industries’ existing infrastructure to serve two purposes at once. Oil companies could make their efforts more productive by using captured carbon dioxide to extract petroleum. Once they’ve exhausted the economic viability of an extraction site, given the right setup, companies could cap the well and leave the carbon dioxide in the ground.
Despite widespread public outcry against the rising tide of human-driven climate change, carbon-based fuels remain a part of the United States’ energy mix, and especially so in Wyoming. In 2018 the United States produced 18% of the world’s crude oil supply, according to the Energy Information Administration, cementing its place as the world’s largest producer and consumer of oil. As the sixth-largest crude oil producer in the U.S., Wyoming is an integral link of the chain of production. In August 2018 the state reached its highest level of production in 25 years.
“When you look forward into the future, there’s no doubt that fossil fuels will be significant for decades to come,” Geologists of Jackson Hole Vice President John Hebberger Jr. said. Still, a “clear transition” to renewables is underway, he said, and “Wyoming, particularly with wind, is playing a greater and greater role in that, so that transition could benefit Wyoming’s economy.”