A basic geology hypothesis has taken on new significance as energy suppliers try to tap a huge reservoir of natural gas underneath portions of New York and Pennsylvania.
It's known that the black shale of the Appalachian Plateau holds natural gas. "It seeps out in streams where [ancient] rock is exposed," says Gary Lash, a professor of geoscience at SUNY Fredonia. What wasn't known is how much is there or how to get it out from deep below the Earth's surface.
Lash, in collaboration with Terry Englander of Pennsylvania State University, surprised everyone by estimating the reserve is some 500 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. Even if only 10% can be recovered, it would nearly double the annual US production of natural gas.
Further, their study of how black shale fractures may help drillers to source deep reserves with less effort.
Lash has studied black shale of the so-called Marcellus formation for decades. Based on field observations of exposed rock - along the shores of Lake Erie for example - he says uplifting movement did not cause the fractures, as others presumed.
Rather, Lash says that the heat of deep earth - 3-4 km below the surface - prompts the transformation of solid organic matter to gas. When this happens, it expands and cracks the surrounding rock.
Lash's research has been supported by a NYS Energy Research and Development Authority grant and has been published in several papers, the most recent in the Geological Society of America Bulletin.
The energy industry has come calling, and Lash has added a consultant's hat to his academic one. "Companies remain bullish on this," he says, in spite of the economic slowdown. "Natural gas may be the fossil fuel that helps with our transition from oil."
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