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December 4, 2013

NERSC Supercomputer Boosts Energy Research

Tiffany Trader
ORNL shale_300

Scientists at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) are using DOE supercomputers and a neutron scanning technique to develop more efficient methods of extracting gas and oil from shale. Using the systems at the Department of Energy’s National Energy Research Supercomputing Center (NERSC) – supercomputing resources include Hopper and Edison – the researchers are studying the structure of gas and oil deposits to understand how traits like pore size can affect accessibility to natural gas.

The research is considered an important step toward establishing more efficient extraction techniques, cleaner coal-based energy production and improved carbon storage and sequestration technologies. This is the viewpoint of Yuri Melnichenko, an instrument scientist at ORNL’s High Flux Isotope Reactor.

Melnichenko is part of a team from ORNL’s Materials Science and Technology Division Research that is analyzing two-dimensional images of shale, looking for important clues. They’ve developed a technique that relies on small-angle neutron scattering, which when combined with electron microscopy and theory, can be used to examine the function of pore sizes. The promising research is documented in a recent paper in the Journal of Materials Chemistry A.

Using the High Flux Isotope Reactor’s General Purpose SANS instrument, the scientists discovered much higher local structural order than previously thought to exist in nanoporous carbons. This sets the stage for scientists to develop improved modeling methods based on local structure of carbon atoms.

“We have recently developed efficient approaches to predict the effect of pore size on adsorption,” states team member and co-author James Morris. “However, these predictions need verification, and the recent small-angle neutron experiments are ideal for this. The experiments also beg for further calculations, so there is much to be done.”

The knowledge gleaned from this experiment also has important implications for the development of novel nanoporous materials custom-designed for energy storage. This would be a tremendous boon for the capture and sequestration of problematic greenhouse gases. Other potential applications include hydrogen storage, membrane gas separation, environmental remediation and catalysis.