The Bureau of Economic Geology The University of Texas at Austin Jackson School of Geosciences
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July 2013
2The University Development Office recently featured Bridget Scanlon in an online article titled “Making History.” The story, underscoring the value of research at the University of Texas at Austin to the public at large, examines Scanlon’s groundbreaking studies devoted to sustainable water resources throughout the world. What began as a pursuit of knowledge that could help feed the poor of Africa grew to encompass a far broader range of research topics. Water, food, and energy are the essential requirements for sustaining any human population, and these are all inextricably tied together in Scanlon’s research. Agriculture accounts for 90 percent of freshwater consumption worldwide, and the recent drought in Texas and large areas of the United States has thrown into sharper relief the importance of how we view and manage our water resources. Says Scanlon, “We need to get a handle on the water used in food production in order to manage water resources effectively.” The use of water resources for the production of energy 1has also become an issue on the public’s radar in recent times. Scanlon and a number of Bureau researchers, including Michael Young, J.-P. Nicot, Ian Duncan, Bob Reedy, Alex Sun, Brad Wolaver and Jeffrey Paine, have been examining the issues of water use in energy production for years. Now that body of work has become of special interest, especially with regard to fracking and the generation of electrical energy. This research and more is featured in a special Bureau web compilation titled  Research Studies in Water and Energy.

3D visualization by Reuben Reyes
The Geothermal Research in Deep Sediments (GRIDS) Research Group at the Bureau of Economic Geology (BEG) received a significant grant from StatOil to conduct a study of geothermal potential in Texas and the United States, with a particular focus on areas of nonconventional geothermal resources. Research Associate Bruce Cutright will serve as PI on the project, which will examine the geothermal energy potential from sedimentary formations at specified temperature and depth intervals within Texas and the United States, as well formulating an estimation of the geothermal energy potential within the United States from crystalline basement rocks at specified temperature and depth intervals. The study is an evolution of groundbreaking work done by GRIDS at the Bureau during the past 5 years, including the development of a database of geothermal resources in Texas and the United States.

p1The West Texas Geological Society (WTGS) recently presented $32,000 in scholarships to fourteen students. Among the recipients were two students who have contributed to Bureau research programs. MS candidate Logan West has worked with the Gulf Coast Carbon Center (GCCC) under the guidance of Susan Hovorka. MS candidate Stefanie Frelinger worked with advisor Peter Eichhubl for the Bureau's Fracture Research and Application Consortium. Both will continue their studies at The University of Texas at Austin Jackson School of Geosciences.

Martin Jackson (left) and GSL President David Shilston

On Wednesday, June 5, The Geological Society of London honored winners of its 2013 Award Citations at the President’s Day Award Ceremony. Receiving honors from GSL President David Shilston were the Bureau’s Martin P. A. Jackson and Chris Jackson. Martin was presented the William Smith Medal celebrating outstanding achievement in the field of applied geology, for which it was noted that, “His fundamental research, in partnership with industry via the Applied Geodynamics Laboratory at Austin, which he founded 25 years ago, has revolutionised oil exploration and development in salt-bearing sedimentary basins—fundamentally changing our view of how passive continental margins evolve.”  Martin replied, “I’m delighted to accept this award on behalf of everyone working in this field—a field that is little taught in universities, but which is a vital part of petroleum exploration. During our 44 years together, my wife Jo has not had an avid interest in differentiating allochthonous salt from autochthonous salt, but she has boosted my career far more than she can guess.” Chris received the Bigsby medal for his application of 3D seismic reflection techniques to study geologic processes. Said Shilston,

Chris Jackson (left) and GSL President David Shilston

“ChrisJackson is arguably the leading and most productive interpreter of three-dimensional seismic reflection data of his generation, using his skill to understand diverse processes in sedimentary basins. However, he has also applied his skills to such subjects as magma migration, mass wasting, faulting patterns through time, and the complex interplay between erosion and deposition. Chris replied, “As you have just heard, ‘diverse’ and ‘wide-ranging’ have been used to describe my research; it may be more accurate to use “unfocused” and “distracted”…. Again, thanks to the Geological Society for awarding me this great honour; I will now set about trying to justify it.”


We Can See It Now. The slide was in dull gray-scale, and showed a very detailed close-up of the surface of a mudrock sample. These familiar scanning electron microscope (SEM) images of rock faces had been used to infer the minerology and composition of rocks since the early 1950s, and Bureau of Economic Geology (BEG) researchers began using UT's own SEMs in the early '70s. Dr. Kitty Milliken, senior research scientist at the Bureau, was presenting the image to a group of industry representatives at an event at the BEG Houston Research Center recently. Then she pulled up the next slide. Brilliant colors and strange shapes exploded on the screen. Wait… the shapes roughly matched the first slide she had shown. It was the same rock sample! A veil had been lifted. New technology had brought the image of the mudrock sample to life, bursting with new information about its composition, making it possible to accurately
mouse over image to toggle
Base image: a typical secondary electron image. Mouse over image to see a color energy dispersive spectroscopy map superimposed on a secondary electron image. Photos by Robert Reed.

characterize vital petrographic data about its depositional environment, post-depositional history, and potential as a hydrocarbon reservoir. "Technology drives science. In the case of petrography, it lets you see things, and seeing sets your imagination free," Dr. Milliken says. "It's fun to be in the middle of a revolution. The enthusiasm I'm encountering on a daily basis is energizing. Mudrocks are finally getting their due! When I first began working on them in the mid-1980s, almost nobody cared. Today, lots of people care, and that's good because mudrocks are, after all, most of the sedimentary record on Earth." Accurate analysis of mudrocks, particularly shales, is driving a tremendous effort in geoscience research these days as oil and gas production from shale has launched a boom in the U.S. not seen since the 1930s. Knowing more about the rocks which hold the hydrocarbons is increasingly important to exploration efforts, especially as drilling and completion costs are so expensive.

Recent developments in both pore-scale imaging capabilities and mudrock sample preparation, largely adopted from technology applied in the silicon wafer industry, have transformed the ability to examine fine-grained rocks. Argon-ion cross-section polishing and related techniques allow creation of flat surfaces on rock materials that are intrinsically resistant to mechanical polishing because of their fine grain size and mixed mineralogy. Field-emission SEM (FE-SEM) applies a technology for electron beam generation that allows higher-resolution imaging, about an order of magnitude higher than is possible with a conventional SEM. Through the application of these techniques, there is an ongoing revolution in the understanding of fine-grained sedimentary systems.

A wide range of Bureau of Economic Geology researchers have been at the forefront of some notable advances in the evolution of electron microbeam imaging. SEM-based cathodoluminescence mosaic imaging for quantitative characterization of fractures in tight-gas systems has revealed that mineral-filled microfractures are part of a fracture population that scales to larger open fractures, enabling better prediction of reservoir properties. High-resolution secondary electron imaging of Argon-ion milled surfaces has revealed the presence of organic-matter-hosted pore systems that may have a genetic link to thermal maturation in some gas shales.

Other BEG breakthroughs include learning that FE-SEM-based cathodoluminescence imaging for characterization of quartz components provides a means to image cements that are responsible for generation of brittle rock behavior. Additionally, high-resolution secondary electron imaging of Argon-ion milled surfaces in experimentally compacted muds reveals the important role of rock texture in controlling the progress of compactional porosity loss in fine grained sediments.

So much of this novel research is based on finally being able to actually see what minerals and elements are in a particular mudrock sample, and how they are situated in relationship to one another, by looking at the vibrant images now possible through new technology. "Petrography also has an esthetic element, and that's a great thing to have in your daily work," says Dr. Milliken. "In a way, it's my job to take beautiful (and meaningful) pictures."

 

 
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