Meet Mary Tkach

Undergrad studies foamed cement to protect the environment during natural gas and oil extraction

Geology major Mary Tkach spent her summer in front of a high-processing computer analyzing CT scans of bubbles—hundreds of them. A certain distribution of bubbles on the CT scans, Tkach knows, can foreshadow devastating results.

Tkach, a participant in the U.S. Department of Energy's Professional Internship Program at the National Energy Technology Laboratory, studied foamed cement that is composed of nitrogen bubbles to improve its strength and reliability. Foamed cement is used by oil and gas companies to provide zonal isolation—or protection—between an oil or gas well and its surroundings.

"My research allowed me to look within cores of cement samples and literally see the spatial distribution and size of the bubbles," said Tkach. Under certain conditions, the bubbles coalesce and weaken the cement's mechanical strength, which could lead to damaging breaks and leaks. "By learning what types of conditions cause these bubble scenarios to occur, we can take steps towards a safe and standardized procedure of the application and construct of these foamed cements. With better foamed cement, we can provide greater zonal isolation to certain wells."

On a typical day, Tkach analyzed hundreds of CT-scanned slices of foamed cement.

"If you were to combine these slices and stack them on top of each other in real life, you would be holding a cement core that is the size of either a highlighter cut in half or a core roughly the size of the cotton end of a Q-tip," she said.

The PIP program is administered by ORAU through its Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education contract with DOE. The program is designed to introduce undergraduate and graduate students to the challenges of conducting basic and applied energy research using state-of-the-art equipment.

Tkach applied to the program after a recommendation from her brother John Tkach, a chemical engineer who attended the program from 2012 to 2013.

"Watching my brother greatly benefit from the PIP program made me really excited to learn about the energy field from a geological perspective through scientific research in a professional setting," said Tkach, who is a junior at the University of Pittsburgh.

During the program, Tkach gained experience in computer coding and multi-dimensional image analysis, along with other skills like networking and problem solving.

"My favorite part of the program was researching alongside all the other members of the Foamed Cement Team," she said. "Although they may not have realized it, all of the people, whether in Pittsburgh or Morgantown, really helped me out so much. Without them, I'm not sure if I would have enjoyed the research or learned as much as I did during my summer at NETL. Despite my geology background, I feel like I had to overcome a severe learning curve to complete the assignment I was expected to carry out. But with the help of the team members, it took no time to catch up, and I am forever grateful for that."

She added, "I would just like to thank my mentor Barbara Kutchko for being one of the most influential professional women in my life currently. She has been such a big help and definitely kick-started my career as a geologist-in-the-making."