Meet Matthew Stadelman

Physics graduate helps build computational model for natural gas extraction

Matthew Stadelman presses his hands together and examines the space between his palms—at least what he can see of it. As Americans’ thirst for energy continues to grow at a rapid pace, so too does the significance of that motion: it represents one of the reasons Stadelman, his lab partners, and millions of others across the continent can keep the lights on.

“The empty space between your palms is like a fracture,” says Stadelman, a graduate of WV Wesleyan College with a bachelor’s degree in applied physics. “The ability for gas to flow through a fracture is directly related to the open space in the fracture.”

Stadelman has spent nearly a year studying the flow of fluids through fractures in the Professional Internship Program (PIP) at the National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL) in Morgantown, West Virginia. The PIP program is administered through the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE), which is managed for DOE by ORAU.

The width between two rock faces of a fracture plays a critical role in a common type of natural gas extraction known as hydraulic fracturing, or hydrofracking. Hydrofracking involves injecting a massive amount of water mixed with a special solution of chemicals into a drilled gas well under high pressure. The pressurized liquid creates fractures in the sedimentary rock bed that connect to pre-existing, natural fractures, forming a massive web of pathways for the release of natural gas.

The larger the fractures, the higher the outflow of natural gas during hydrofracking. These fractures are therefore of keen interest to scientists and engineers, like Stadelman and his team, in the Predictive Geosciences Division at NETL.

Stadelman’s research focuses on bridging the gap between the visible (fractures) and the invisible (fluid flow). In less than a year at the lab, he has participated in three major projects, all involving computational modeling of the flow of underground fluids. While his first two projects leveraged NETL’s computational modeling code for discrete fracture flow simulations in reservoirs, NFFLOW, the third project, has allowed Stadelman to help develop a new model: capturing how fluid flows through a single fracture.

The goal of the model Stadelman and his team are building is to observe how the flow of a liquid or gas changes when a fracture is put under shearing stress, which happens when two rock faces slide against one another, or other methods of deformation.

“So far, experiments have shown significant changes in fracture geometry due to shearing,” says Stadelman, who meets with his mentor Dr. Dustin Crandall a few times a week to discuss progress and ideas.

Essentially, the model calculates at what rate and through which preferential channels the fluid takes through a fracture. This holds implications not only for natural gas extraction but also for carbon capture and sequestration, which involves pumping pressurized carbon dioxide underground for long term storage.

Overall, Stadelman’s research contributes to a body of knowledge that has far-reaching impacts across America.

“Although my projects are geared mainly towards industrial applications,” Stadelman explains, “the average American could see the impact of my research by whether or not a natural gas well is placed near his or her home. Engineers may determine this based on how other wells in the area have performed according to our models,” he said. “Furthermore, my current project could help determine the viability of geothermal energy based on the fracture characteristics in the area and the knowledge of how heating and cooling stresses affect the surrounding rock.”

Stadelman will be finished with his year-and-a-half-long appointment in summer 2016. Already, he says he has significantly improved his programming skills while honing both independent and team-oriented social and analytical skills.

“I have thoroughly enjoyed my time at NETL through ORISE,” says Stadelman, who first came to NETL as a fellow in the Mickey Leland Energy Fellowship (MLEF) program in summer 2014. “I have recommended both the ORISE program and the MLEF program to my peers, and I would do it again.”