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Fall 2008
Leading geophysicist Rob Stewart is working on seismic imaging advances that could unlock new oil and gas deposits deep beneath the Earth’s surface.
Geophysicists Finding Tomorrow’s Energy Solutions
By Rolando Garcia
Natural Sciences and Mathematics Communications

Rob Stewart once dreamed of launching into space. Now the former astronaut and renowned geophysicist could help launch the University of Houston into top-tier status.

Stewart, a prominent researcher who applies his geological expertise in fields as diverse as space exploration and archeology, is among a handful of recent geosciences faculty recruits who will transform UH into a world leader for energy research. These geophysicists – whose work could unlock new oil and gas deposits deep beneath the Earth’s surface – are at the forefront of a universitywide initiative to find tomorrow’s energy solutions.

UH President Renu Khator has identified energy research as one of the university’s top priorities. That is why Stewart, and two other leading geophysicists hired this year – Chris Liner and Evgeny Chesnokov – will be joined by four more in the near future. These and other new faculty positions are an enormous investment and will make UH a world leader in petroleum geology and geophysics.

Their work to discover and more effectively harvest oil and natural gas deposits could be the pivotal factor in the energy project’s success. The world’s pursuit of more and cleaner fuel, combined with Houston’s status as the world’s energy capital, provides UH with an unparalleled opportunity, said John Bear, dean of the College of Natural Science and Mathematics.

"We’re building the dream team of the world’s best applied geophysicists," Bear said. "Their work, along with the energy-related research being done by scientists throughout the college, will help solve our energy problems while propelling UH to top-tier status."

The geophysics research also has a green side. Liner, who joined the faculty in January, is part of a Department of Energy project that would capture greenhouse gases and bury them deep beneath the ground.

Drilling for more petroleum while protecting the environment and developing alternative fuels for the future are not conflicting goals, Liner said.

"I’m as green as the next guy, but the fact is petroleum will run the world for the next few decades, so we’re keeping the lights on until the switch to alternative energy is made," Liner said.

Both Liner’s and Stewart’s research focuses on using improved seismic imaging to see through layers of rock and get a better picture of what lies under the surface. With much of the easily accessibly oil deposits already tapped, better expertise and technology are needed to find and produce previously overlooked reservoirs, Stewart said.

From Canada to Texas

The seismic imaging work of Stewart, a former professor at the University of Calgary in Canada, could aid in deep-sea petroleum exploration, especially vital as exploration moves farther and deeper offshore.

In a typical seismic survey, a sound wave is sent through the water into the ocean floor. The wave is reflected back through the water and captured near the ocean surface, giving surveyors a sort of X-ray of what lies beneath the ocean floor.

However, Stewart’s work involves placing sensors on the ocean floor that would capture and record the waves bouncing back for crisper, more accurate images of the rock formations and possible fluid reservoirs beneath the ocean floor, Stewart said.

Using different types of seismic waves will produce more detailed, color-coded maps showing every curve, bend and fault of subsurface rock formations, Stewart said. This improved seismic data will help explorers find and extract crude oil, natural gas, oil sands, water, coal or anything else that lies in hard-to-find deposits beneath the surface, he said.

When an oil deposit is found, improved seismic imaging also can help surveyors monitor how the reservoir moves and contracts as the oil is removed, allowing for a more efficient and thorough extraction of the reservoir’s contents.

More sophisticated seismic imaging is essential as the world increasingly relies on oil reserves that are hard to find and extract, Stewart said.

Stewart came to UH in September, a prized addition to what is becoming one of the top geophysics programs in the world. He was also one of a tiny handful selected as an astronaut for the Canadian space program. Although Stewart was not selected for a space mission, he did test space suits in Mars-like conditions at a NASA base to assess whether astronauts could perform geological studies while wearing bulky space gear.

Stewart also has trekked to the rainforests of Belize to help archeologists unravel the mysterious disappearance of an ancient civilization. Using seismic imaging, he scanned Mayan pyramids that were still buried, intact and untouched by excavation.

Seismic data can provide a rough sketch of the ruins – including the location of tombs and burial chambers – to help future archeological digs.

At UH, Stewart also will be leading geophysics students on field trips to a site in southern Montana near Yellowstone National Park. There students will get hands-on experience using advanced seismic imaging to scope out oil and water deposits.

UH’s considerable investment in energy research and its location in the energy capital opens up exciting new possibilities, Stewart said.

Burying Greenhouse Gases

To become an energy innovation powerhouse, UH also must lead the way in protecting the environment. Liner is part of a federally funded program to assess the feasibility of capturing carbon dioxide – the leading cause of the planet’s rising temperatures – and burying it reservoirs deep beneath the ground.

Using advanced seismic imaging, Liner is studying a limestone reservoir in Kansas that once held oil. Such reservoirs could be ideal for carbon sequestration because they are sealed and do not leak, Liner said.

Knowing the precise size and architecture of a reservoir, geoscientists can simulate what would happen when carbon dioxide is injected, estimate how much carbon the reservoir would hold and whether it would stay contained, Liner said.

The reservoir Liner is studying in Kansas could hold up to 350,000 tons of carbon. If thousands of similar sites throughout the world could be used to store carbon dioxide, the amount of greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere could be significantly reduced, Liner said.

Technology is rapidly evolving that could capture carbon emissions from power plants and manufacturing plants and allow them to be piped into an underground reservoir, he said. That technology is not cheap, but as governments around the world pressure industry to reduce their carbon emissions, the capture-and-store alternative will become increasingly attractive.

"This has to be a global effort," Liner said. "The clock is ticking. We can’t wait for 15 years to do something."
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