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Makerspace-built device aids NJIT fracking study

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Bruno Goncalves da Silva, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at NJIT, in the college's new Makerspace.
Bruno Goncalves da Silva, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at NJIT, in the college's new Makerspace. - ()

Bruno Goncalves da Silva, an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at New Jersey Institute of Technology, has designed a device to be used in a fracking study, making it the first scientific instrument to be fabricated at the new Makerspace at NJIT facility.

At Makerspace, NJIT staff join with manufacturers and doctoral students to make engineering curriculum more hands-on via 3-D printers, laser-cutting machines and machining centers. The program, launched in December, features computer-aided design equipment, computer numerical control machining, metalworking, electronics design, assembly and industrial metrology.

For the fracking project, Goncalves da Silva teamed with Aristides Chavez, Makerspace’s lab specialist for manufacturing and fabrication, and doctoral student Gayany Sasendrika, to design a three-dimensional pressure enclosure. They are using it to study the processes of fracturing rock under real-world field stress conditions.

Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is a method used to extract natural gas or oil embedded within shale rock deep below the earth’s surface. It involves forcing open fissures in subterranean rocks by introducing liquid at high pressures.

One problematic byproduct: earthquakes.

“We are trying to replicate the conditions of the field,” Goncalves da Silva said. “The question is can we change some parameters in order to decrease the magnitude of these earthquakes? Can we change injection rates? Can we change the fluid? Can we do hydraulic fracturing a different way?”

The National Science Foundation made a one-year grant of $130,000 to help with the research, which started a year ago and is expected to extend another two years. Goncalves da Silva said the device will help energy companies and others to understand fracking better and improve the design of hydraulic fracturing processes.

The National Science Foundation does not sponsor research that can be directly used by oil companies.

Bruno Goncalves da Silva, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at NJIT, and doctoral student Gayany Sasendrika with the pressure enclosure the two designed for research on hydraulic fracturing at NJIT.
Bruno Goncalves da Silva, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at NJIT, and doctoral student Gayany Sasendrika with the pressure enclosure the two designed for research on hydraulic fracturing at NJIT. - ()

There hasn’t been a lot of fracking in New Jersey to date, though nearby Pennsylvania is a hot spot.

“I think that once hydraulic fracturing is better understood New Jersey can gain from that,” Goncalves da Silva said.

Fracking is not limited to oil and gas production. It can also be used in enhanced geothermal systems in which heat is captured from the sub-surface to produce electricity with zero carbon dioxide emissions.

“These enhanced geothermal systems have a lot of potential in the future," he said. "Right now oil and gas prices are low, so there might not be demand. That will change eventually.”

Daniel Brateris, director of experiential learning at NJIT, said Makerspace supports NJIT’s students and professors by enabling their ability to design and build physical devices rather than merely discussing concepts.

“As the proficiency of engineers and designers started to increase, we needed to push the bounds of academic research in terms of engineering,” Brateris said. “With the advent of 3-D printing and the ability for computer-controlled machining and all these technologies that allow us to go from a concept to a completed project much faster, the need for engineers who come out of engineering schools who have the ability to build things is much more critical.”

Donald Sebastian, president and CEO of the New Jersey Innovation Institute, an NJIT corporation, said Makerspace also is helping the U.S. military.

“We are continuing a multiyear collaboration with Picatinny Arsenal,” Sebastian said, referring to the military research and manufacturing facility in Morris County. “They are working aggressively to prove the capability of additive manufacturing for battlefield supply-parts manufacturing.”

The Army is looking at the different additive manufacturing processes to see which ones make parts that hold up best in the field.

“We are still flying World War II-vintage bombers and the only way to get spare parts for many is to find old ones in the airplane graveyards,” Sebastian said.

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David Hutter

David Hutter


David Hutter grew up in Darien, Conn., and covers higher education, transportation and manufacturing for NJBIZ. He can be reached at dhutter@njbiz.com.

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