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University of Houston Cullen College of Engineering

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Senior Researcher, Ph.D. Student Recognized for Shale Research

By: 

Toby Weber
Dan Coleff

Dan Coleff, a senior researcher with the University of Houston’s Cullen College of Engineering Petroleum Engineering Program and Geology Ph.D. candidate at UH, has been recognized for his work to develop artificial mudrocks that match the properties of shale.

Coleff won the award for the best poster presentation at a recent meeting of the Society of Sedimentary Geology’s Gulf Coast Section. His poster outlined research he is conducting with Michael Myers, a professor of petroleum engineering at UH.

While shale oil and gas have sparked an energy boom in the United States and beyond, actual shale rocks aren’t well understood. According to Myers, the petroleum industry’s knowledge of shale is decades behind its understanding of more traditional reservoir rocks. This lack of knowledge makes it more difficult and expensive for petroleum companies to safely retrieve resources from shale formations.

One of the challenges to better knowing shale is that there just isn’t much actual shale rock available for study. Most rock core samples are taken from traditional reservoirs, which don’t offer much shale. Since taking a core sample is extremely expensive, few pure shale cores are available.

Coleff and Myers are working to create artificial mudrocks that match the properties of shale. In doing so, they hope to provide researchers in industry and academia with an easy and affordable shale alternative to use in their own experiments.

To create these rocks Coleff combines clay, silt and other rock components in a brine. He then uses a device called an oedometer cell to apply roughly 3,000 pounds per square inch of pressure to the brine, dewatering the mixture to form solid rock.

Coleff compares the artificial mudrock with naturally occurring shale that has been crushed and reconstituted using the same method. If the two show similar properties in areas such as acoustical and petrophysical measurements, the artificial mudrocks can serve as a good substitute for shale in the lab.

This, Coleff said, should help researchers learn the important properties of shale more quickly. “If we can create our own shales and make the petrophysical models from these mudrocks, than we’re one step ahead of the game.”

While it’s a bit unusual for a graduate student in one college to conduct research under a professor from another, Coleff noted that UH’s Petroleum Engineering Program and its Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences complement each other in many areas; he hopes to see more such collaborations in the future. “This has been an excellent arrangement for me personally,” said Coleff. “Dr. Myers is always willing to go above and beyond for his students, plus there’s a natural fit between fields like geology and petroleum engineering. This sort of partnership really helps researchers from both disciplines.”

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