Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Oil drilling: a dirty job

How does working two weeks each month sound? Well if you're working the 9 to 5 job or crazy graduate student hours it might sound like a deal. But the work this kind of  job requires might be a bit beyond what you're willing give. Just look at how tough of a time Mike from Dirty Jobs is having:

Now imagine doing that kind of job on an offshore drilling platform in the middle of the ocean! As we saw in the story of gasoline getting oil to the gas station is an involved process but getting the oil up from deep within the earth is quite the process too. The U.S. imports a large part of our oil from foreign sources (almost 50% in 2010) but we have a large amount of oil in the Gulf of Mexico. This is where offshore drilling platforms are found. In 2006, there were over 4,000 platforms in the gulf according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association. An image helps that number hit home.

The 4,000 platforms in the Gulf of Mexico in 2006.
So how do these offshore oil rigs get to the oil? Well, the one video I found that describes the process very clearly is actually for a research vessel trying to drill through Earth's crust which is pretty cool! The process to drill for oil is the same but the drilling stops when the reservoir (big pocket of oil and gas) is reached.

Basically, a vessel or platform positions itself about the location by GPS and then lowers a drill head on a long cable down to the ocean floor. The hole is lined with casing (metal piping) to reinforce it. Once the reservoir is reached then the oil is pumped up and to a holding tank or through a pipeline to shore.

The guys who are out there on the rigs work 2 weeks straight often with 12 hour shifts (they are paid pretty well though). Fortunately the platforms aren't just for business. They usually have a movie theater and gym. This article describes the rig life in more detail. Sleeping in tiny bunks and braving windy weather are just some of the downsides of the job.

The process to reach oil thousands of feet below the ocean isn't easy. It's amazing to me the technology involved to get the precious resource out. As with my brief story of gasoline, there is a lot I'm leaving out so this will fit into a blog post. Read this longer story of the complete oil drilling process over at HowStuffWorks for more information. If you think you can brave the waves, tiny room, and 12 hour days then kudos to you because I definitely couldn't do it!

Monday, September 24, 2012

The story of gas(oline)

Have you ever been filling up your car at the gas station and wondered where that smelly liquid comes from? When it costs an arm and a leg to fill up the tank then it’s got to be a long, expensive process, right? Well, I admit that I generally am watching the numbers next to the $ increase rapidly instead of thinking about how gas traveled to get to my car’s tank.

But it is a very important story with impacts to our country’s economy, national security, and energy future. Not to mention the personal impacts when you thought you could make those last 30 miles with the empty light on because, hey, Jeremy did it in Top Gear (go to 8:00 in the video for the real drama).

Watch Part 1 and Part 2.

Alright, back to gasoline. Here is the whole story in picture flowchart form. The very, very beginning is not pictured because black goo turning blacker doesn’t lend to a good picture. (I'm referring to animal and plant material slowly being compressed to create oil.) I start with an image I created because I couldn't find any good ones on Google.

Geophysics combined with geology leads to a well being drilled and oil extracted.

OK, so now in more detail. The story of gasoline starts with crude oil (made out of hydrocarbons; crude because it is unrefined) deep in the earth. We extract oil on land and from under the ocean. Let’s focus on the oil taken from beneath the ocean, say in the Gulf of Mexico, a place full of oil. The first step is to find it! This type of treasure hunting involves large ships running different types of surveys. Most likely a seismic survey (sends out vibrations and listens for them to come back) and maybe electromagnetic survey (sends out electrical energy which goes down into the earth and is recorded at a receiver on the seafloor) are run over an area in the ocean.  The data is processed by geophysicists who create a model of the subsurface. Then geophysicists consult with geologists to make sure the model make sense. An oil company then spends millions or billions of dollars to drill down to wear the oil is located (more on that technology in a later post). The oil is extracted and sent to a refinery where it is filtered into gasoline as well as other products like diesel fuel and kerosene. The refining process basically separates the oil by different boiling points with gasoline having a lower boiling point than kerosene or diesel fuel. Finally the gasoline is put into a tanker and delivered to your local gas station. The End.

So what are you actually paying for at the pump? Well, I had the same question and luckily for us the U.S. Energy Information Administration broke it down.

The breakdown of where the money goes for a gallon of gas.
I know this was a long story but it is an important one. This general story of gasoline glossed over some of the important issues behind this controversial energy product but it is a starting place for more detailed posts about some of the processes involved to get oil from below the ocean turned into gasoline for our cars.

I'll still always watch the numbers next to the $ when I fill up my car with gas but now I'll also think about the journey the oil took to get to the gas station and where my money is going.

Monday, September 17, 2012

I break for science

The name of this post comes from a tweet - the tweet of a six wheeled four eyed Martian rover, Curiosity.

Curiosity's self-portrait
Does Curiosity remind you of any other adorable robots?

WALL-E from Pixar's movie of the same name.
Curiosity, like WALL-E, is a pretty funny machine. On September 10th, the rover said “They see me rovin': Check out my dubs planted firmly on the Martian surface.” You can follow the Curiosity’s tweets here.

The purpose of sending the rover to Mars is to discover if the planet ever was hospitable to life. Curiosity has scientific instruments to test the soil and rocks. I’m talking cool stuff like a laser to shoot at rocks. Read all about the specific instruments here

Mars has many interesting features that have captured the attention of geophysicists for decades. The planet is almost perfectly divided in half with the southern hemisphere 1-3km higher in elevation than the northern hemisphere. It’s called the Mars dichotomy (big word for division). Mars also has a giant crack in it called the Valles Marineris which is much larger than the Grand Canyon on Earth.

The Mars dichotomy shown by change in elevation from north to south.

Valles Marineris shown as the blue in this colored image.
The explanation of these features could help us understand more about our own planet. Curiosity is assisting geophysicists by investigating how much water is in the soil and rocks of Mars. The results will help narrow down the possible models for how Mars formed.

The treasure-trove of information that Curiosity is sending back to Earth will fuel scientists for years and hopefully inspire kids and adults alike to imagine the wonders Mars holds.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Obama came to town

The President of the United States visited Golden on Thursday. Our little town was excited to have him. (Personally, I was a little frustrated because all the traffic meant I didn’t have enough time to sneak a mountain biking ride on North Table.) Colorado, as a swing state, has seen a lot of President Obama lately but he is only the second President to personally campaign in Golden. The other was Ulysses Grant!

President Obama speaking in Golden, CO. Check out the "M" behind him!
Now I wasn't there but I did think about what I would want to hear and I was surprised when I read about his speech. I'm not going to get into politics in this post but I do what to talk  about what Obama didn’t say.

He didn't say anything about energy or science or R&D research & development funding! Now, I know, Obama was addressing the general public but, come on, he was just blocks away from a purely science and engineering school, Colorado School of Mines, and a couple miles from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in a state that has a large amount of natural gas!

But the lack of talk about energy, science, and R&D research & development funding isn’t something new in this campaign for both parties. The blog Science-Insider highlighted last Wednesday a report comparing the technology innovation policies supported by Obama and Romney released from The Information Technology & Innovation Foundation. The nonpartisan think-tank concludes that neither party has it completely right. I was happy to see the sentence below appear in the conclusion:
"The candidates’ proposals on science and technology, innovation, broadband and telecommunications, energy, etc. documented in this report represent an important first step, but it’s time for these issues to receive far greater attention in the presidential contest and beyond.”
The bottom line is that whoever becomes the next President of the United States will affect the direction of research and money in science and more specifically geophysics. Scientists (this includes me) would like to think that politics don’t affect research but that just isn’t true. The direction of energy and science matters and we need to talk about it more!

President Obama, the next time you come to Golden, could we please talk some energy and science? Please! It's something I treasure!

What do you guys think? What science topic do you think is important in this election? Do the candidates need to define their energy plans better?

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

There's Treasure Everywhere

Hello and welcome to Treasure Hunting! My name is Ali Knaak. I am a graduate student working and playing in Golden, Colorado. This blog is a project for my Advanced Science Communication class. The goal is to mix some science with good stories, communication, and discussion to hopefully produce an interesting, engaging blog.

Do you remember as a kid going outside and exploring the backyard? When I was a kid I would explore everything from the nearby creek to dirt piles left from construction. My mom tells me how I would spend hours outside collecting “gems” from the landscaping rocks and bring a big pile inside to keep. (Yep, I had a rock polisher.) I still have some of the rocks I picked up as a child and I still have a yearning to explore. It’s the excitement of a new discovery and finding an answer to a question. I think everyone still has a little kid in them wanting to go discover something. We are hunting for treasure.

Calvin & Hobbes say it best. Source:
This blog is about treasure hunting – both as an idea and a practice. I think treasure hunting sums up a lot of what we are trying to do in the world. There’s the philosophical idea that everyone is hunting for some treasure but there is also the relentless search for new caches of diamonds, metals, oil, etc. One way that these treasures are found is geophysics. Geophysics uses physical properties of the earth and/or the target to locate and characterize the target and area. An everyday example of geophysics is taking a metal detector out to the beach to find lost rings and watches. Geophysics is connected to many different, relevant areas like gas, fracking, locating unexploded bombs, and finding water such to name a few. My hope is to make these connections more apparent because it will help me understand the goals of my graduate school research in the context of the world and hopefully help you understand how you affect this area of science and how it affects you. I will be exploring these things through this blog. So join me on this journey. Check back in for another post sometime this week.

For day let's just remember: There's Treasure Everywhere!