Geophysicist Brad Hager is using our understanding of seismology and geology to find ways to responsibly extract carbon energy resources embedded underground, and to capture carbon emissions and return them deep into the earth.
His work on tectonic plate movement, flow in the Earth’s deep interior, and earthquakes are part of what’s called by some a “golden age of research” in mantle dynamics. Brad Hager arrived at MIT in 1989 to work alongside fellow pioneering colleagues like Peter Molnar, Tom Herring, and Bob King just as GPS technology was revolutionizing geophysics, allowing data collection in the field at previously unimagined resolutions and accuracy.
But about a decade ago Hager began wondering about the future of his children in a world threatened by climate change.
“I had sort of a moment of introspection and said, ‘Okay, you do well at this theoretical stuff, but what’s that going to do for the world?’” he said. “MIT being about ‘Mens et manus’—‘don’t just think, do something’—I thought, ‘This is a field I can make a contribution to.’”
That was when Hager began the switch from measuring mountains and tectonic strain to beginning more applied work on geologic carbon sequestration and the underground storage of wastewater from oil production and natural gas fracking. “Storing these fluids underground could end up triggering earthquakes, and unless we know how to manage those earthquakes and manage the public’s expectation of those earthquakes, it’s not going to be a viable solution for our climate problems,” he said. As Cecil and Ida Green Professor of Earth Sciences and, since 2012, Director of the Institute’s Earth Resources Laboratory, Hager has also worked to make a difference in the fracking being done to free natural gas and oil from deeply embedded shale. The aim is to grow the roughly 10 percent of gas released from the rock to, say, 50 percent by improved understanding and efficiency of the fracturing process.
“To get the same amount of gas out you would have to drill one-fifth the wells, do one-fifth the environmental damage and have one-fifth the wastewater to dispose of. It’s an applied science issue that has implications for society,” said Hager, who is motivated by the fact natural gas produces about half the carbon dioxide as burning coal. “I know that hydrofracturing has bad press, but in my view it’s actually a very positive step toward mitigating climate change.”
In looking at near-surface and subsurface problems involving energy and the environment, Hager felt he might make fundamental contributions to the field of carbon capture and sequestration (CCS)—ridding the atmosphere of greenhouse-gas emissions by capturing carbon dioxide and injecting it deep below the Earth’s surface, where it would be stored safely away.
At the time of his switch from large-scale theoretical problems a decade ago, “I got very excited about the topic,” Hager said, even though carbon sequestration was starting to see some pushback amid concerns about the long-term safety and viability of certain methods, including even questions from within MIT about the degree to which carbon dioxide actually gets converted to rock. “Carbon sequestration got stalled for a long time,” he said.
Recently, however, there has been renewed interest in CCS. For example, less than six months after taking office in 2013, Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz (MIT Professor Emeritus of Physics and Engineering Systems and founding director of the MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI)) told the annual Carbon Sequestration Leadership Forum in Washington, D.C., that the “technology is ready” for Environmental Protection Agency standards. In January 2015 he announced the capture and storage of 1 million metric tons of carbon dioxide from an Archer Daniels Midland ethanol plant in Illinois, calling it, “an important step toward the widespread deployment of carbon capture technologies in real-world settings.”
“People have come to recognize that using carbon dioxide for things like enhanced oil recovery makes it possible to get more oil out while burying carbon dioxide, and that sort of made it a less bitter pill to swallow for the energy industry,” said Hager. “At the same time, the capture technology that gets developed is needed to scale up carbon sequestration to the point required to make a real impact solving the climate problem. The political climate is changing, and many people even to the right on the spectrum are beginning to recognize the reality of climate change caused by excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and a lot of people want to do something about it.”
MITEI’s Annual Research Conference, scheduled for Oct. 19-20, will see the rollout of its Center for Carbon Capture, Use and Sequestration, where Hager will be Co-Director. The consortium is to include companies such as Corning Glass because, “it takes real industrial experience to be able to do this at scale,” he said. “Talking to the companies who are now newly interested in doing this is going to be a really interesting thing.”
Although the motivation for this science is applied, the resulting discoveries will also advance more fundamental science. For example, subsurface reservoirs where earthquakes are triggered by the disposal of the wastewater associated with fracking and oil production are “natural laboratories” for understanding earthquake physics. “We don’t have to wait for the plates to move to build up the stresses—the stress field is altered on human time scales by injecting and removing fluids and changing the fluid pressures. So there’s a lot of good science in this, even though it’s primarily motivated by applications,” Hager said.
Hager continues to work on improved ways to measure and track deformations of the Earth’s surface, as well as better ways to monitor underground reservoirs of groundwater, hydrocarbon resources, and sequestered CO2. He is presently a co-lead of the Science Definition Team on the proposed NASA-ISRO SAR (NISAR) mission, a partnership of NASA and the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) which will use synthetic aperture radar (SAR) satellite technology to analyze changes to our planet in three spheres of research: ecosystems, solid earth, and the cryosphere. From orbit, the radar imaging will capture a broad view of global surface changes, but with millimeter accuracy on meter-scale resolution, and all in time lapse, offering some of the most detailed geophysical observations ever achieved.
Scientists like Hager will be able to use the data collected by the NISAR mission to understand how the Earth’s crust is deformed by not only tectonic motion on a global scale, but also how it is affected on local scales when fluids (like water, oil, or gas) are withdrawn or injected deep below the surface by human hands. And by understanding these fundamental mechanisms, scientists can move on to working on how to better predict and mitigate negative impacts, and possibly prevent them altogether—work that is crucial for managing the world’s future CO2 emissions, and water and hydrocarbon resources.
Hager hears the push for earth sciences to resist a reputation for the applied and hew closer to a tradition of pure intellectual excitement. “I totally understand,” he said. “That’s the way I ran the first part of my career.”
But in his work, he thinks he has both.
“They’re really systems problems—they bring in all these things, energy, earthquakes, economy, geopolitical stability. They’re very interesting intermingled problems,” he said. “And they are really important.”
Read more about Professor Hager and the Earth Resources Laboratory: http://bit.ly/hager-erl
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