WVU, Ohio State researchers awarded $2 million for shale energy - Beckley, Bluefield & Lewisburg News, Weather, Sports

WVU, Ohio State researchers awarded $2 million for shale energy research

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MORGANTOWN, WV -

Researchers from West Virginia University and the Ohio State University have been awarded a National Science Foundation grant through the Division of Environmental Biology to study the microbial biodiversity found in deep underground shale formations.

Paula Mouser, Ohio State assistant professor in civil, environmental and geodetic engineering, is the principal investigator on the study proposal, "Microbial Biodiversity and Function of Deep Shale and its Interfaces." Shikha Sharma, WVU assistant professor in geology, is principal investigator for WVU's side of the research project. Additional Ohio State co-investigators include David Cole, professor of earth sciences, Ohio Research Scholar and director of Ohio State's Subsurface Energy Materials Characterization and Analysis Laboratory; Mike Wilkins, assistant professor of earth sciences; and Kelly Wrighton, assistant professor of microbiology.

The deep shale biosphere stores an abundance of methane and other oil hydrocarbons that provide carbon and energy resources for microorganisms, both within the shale and along its bounding formations. Extreme conditions encountered within these rocks include the absence of light for photosynthesis, sub-micron pore-spaces, elevated temperatures, high pressures, and brine fluid chemistry. Each of these environmental factors may strongly influence the origin, adaptation and function of the microbial population.

Ohio State's share of the research award, $1.65 million, will use a metagenomics-based approach to examine microbial life and function in a rarely examined habitat: kilometer-deep black shale, a critical component of the U.S. energy portfolio. This habitat also represents an ecosystem under immediate risk for biodiversity change as a result of the energy industry's use of new horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing technologies.

Sharma will receive $351,000 to probe the chemical and isotopic biomarkers that microorganisms leave behind during their growth and respiration process. Biomarkers will be studied from within deep shale cores and in laboratory enrichment studies that help link microbial gene presence to metabolic function.

"Understanding the diversity and metabolic potential of microorganisms residing in these rocks and fluids is extremely important because it has implications for current and past life on our planet in addition to human-induced changes that might occur to this rare ecosystem" Mouser said. "The information we plan to gather will help us to infer the origin of detected microbes with respect to shale geologic history, explore how microorganisms have adapted to the current deep biosphere environment, and investigate the unique strategies microbes use to sequester nutrient resources given extreme environmental conditions."

Mouser and Sharma found evidence of the existence of microbial activity through previous independent work and decided to work together discovering more about life under Appalachia's surface.

"It would be the first study of its kind—that's what we're excited about," Sharma said.

The Marcellus and Utica-Point Pleasant shale within the Appalachian basin of Ohio and West Virginia is one of the largest unconventional reserves in the U.S. Research into these shale formations will serve as a case study to broadly characterize biodiversity and function in the shale and its bounding rock interfaces. The team expects this research to expand the knowledge of microbial life and function in shale, prior to broad-scale environmental disturbance as a result of energy exploitation, and provide insight into microbial carbon cycling in the deep terrestrial biosphere.

The project is slated to begin in January 2014, and allows for a four-year study time frame. The research team expects to conduct research at specially drilled vertical boreholes to ensure the collection of pristine core samples from the Marcellus and Utica shale depths. Core collection activities are slated to begin in mid- to late 2014.

This research award is the first activity to occur under the Ohio State-WVU partnership for shale energy research, entered into in February 2013 to motivate the universities to work collaboratively on research in the Appalachian Region's developing shale energy industry.

Research findings will be distributed through a variety of educational activities to be developed under the partnership. Project investigators plan to make their results available to industry, non-profit organizations, governmental agencies, educational institutions, and other stakeholders in the Appalachian region through regular workshops and meetings led by Ohio State's Subsurface Energy Resource Center, Environmental Sciences Network, Ohio State University Extension, and WVU Extension Service Offices.

Additional project objectives include sharing results with the public through outreach activities at local schools, libraries, museums and other public venues, in an attempt to educate the public on what exists in the deep subsurface; learn about the characteristics and preferences of these micro-organisms; match microbes with their deep-sea cousins; and observe what this research exposes about community structure before and after drilling.