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Mitigating geohazards in resource extraction

UNBC Engineering Assistant Professor Dr. Wenbo Zheng received a NSERC Discovery Grant for his project Improving characterization and modelling of the rock-proppant interaction in hydraulic fractures for deep-earth geo-resource extraction. UNBC photo

UNBC – We use it to heat our homes and our water and as fuel for transportation, but how can we get natural gas out of the ground safely and efficiently?

By integrating geomechanics with geofluids, UNBC Engineering Assistant Professor Dr. Wenbo Zheng is exploring ways to extract shale gas and deep geothermal energy efficiently while mitigating geohazards such as small-scale earthquakes and landslides. Zheng received a Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council Discovery Grant worth $142,500 to further his research into deep earth resource extraction.

“This research project will advance my long-term objectives by improving the characterization and modelling of the rock-proppant interaction in hydraulic fractures to safely enhance natural gas recovery from deep rock formations,” Zheng says. “The improved characterization and modelling of the rock-proppant interaction are also applicable to the emerging enhanced geothermal systems.”

Western Canada, including northeastern British Columbia, is home to shale gas reserves where the natural gas is trapped two to three kilometres below the surface in low permeability rock formations. To get the gas out of the ground, natural resource companies use a process known as hydraulic fracturing. They inject water, chemicals and proppants (like quartz sand) to crack the ground, to make it possible for the gas to flow out.

Zheng’s project, titled Improving characterization and modelling of the rock-proppant interaction in hydraulic fractures for deep-earth geo-resource extraction, intends to better understand how the sand used as proppants interacts with the rocks.

“My research aims to improve the characterization and modelling of the mechanical behaviours of proppants in rock fractures to better apply proppants in hydraulic fracturing and enhance shale gas recovery,” Zheng says. “The research also plans to examine the shearing of fractures after placing proppants, which can be related to fracking-related microseismicity.”

Zheng says UNBC’s location close to British Columbia’s natural gas fields, as well as the expertise at the University, make it an ideal location to conduct his research.

“Situated in northern B.C., UNBC provides an excellent venue for conducting research in the area that is globally significant as well as highly relevant to the local industry,” he says. “UNBC has a comprehensive multi-disciplinary research team in natural resources and environmental sciences, which provides great opportunities for interdisciplinary collaboration through this project.”

The grant will support both undergraduate and graduate researchers in Zheng’s lab.

Zheng is collaborating with Dr. Ranjith Pathegama Gamage’s Deep Earth Energy Research Group at Monash University in Australia and Dr. Xinli Hu’s geohazard group at the China University of Geosciences. He also working with Calgary-based AGAT Laboratories and is seeking other opportunities to work with industrial partners and provincial oil and gas regulators.

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