WVU a Hotbed Of Research Activity

CAFEE Director Dan Carder, left, and Arvind Thiruvengadam talk as they work outside of the lab in this Oct. 2015 file photograph.

MORGANTOWN — West Virginia University is classified among the highest-ranked doctoral universities for research activity, and the school is eager to show the world why.

Last year, the university conducted $143 million in sponsored contracts and research grants, earning it a high classification by the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education: R1 Doctoral Universities.

This month, WVU held an Academic Media Day to showcase some of that research, including vehicle engine emissions studies, such as the one last year that exposed two Volkswagen engines’ excessive nitrogen oxide emissions; the psychology of social media posts about the general election; and field research into fracking water.

WVU President E. Gordon Gee said the research being done at the university will help improve health care and spur the economy — but it must be shared and applied.

“It does us no good to discover the cure for cancer and just keep it on campus,” he said.

VW Emissions Scandal

Dan Carder of the Center for Alternative Fuels, Engines and Emissions led the research into Volkswagen emissions that broke into scandal more than a year ago.

Through a study, researchers discovered that these vehicles were working in the test field, but not in real life, and WVU’s research ended up being part of “the largest legal action taken in the history of the automotive industry,” Carder said.

Basically, WVU researchers found during real-world emissions evaluations that emissions of nitrogen oxide, one of the top six most common air pollutants, from two Volkswagen light-duty diesel engines studied, exceeded a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency standard, according to a Sept. 24 article in “WVU Today” magazine online.

Those two vehicles “were emitting five to 35 times the oxides of nitrogen permitted by regulators,” it states.

Meanwhile, laboratory studies done by the California Air Resources Board and the EPA revealed that the automaker changed code in the cars’ central computer in order to cheat on the emissions test.

For its research, WVU was under contract by the the International Council on Clean Transportation, to do that study of three engines, including the two Volkswagens, it states. The study results, including WVU’s findings, were widely publicized, including in Time magazine.

These days, the department is continuing to develop better emissions technology, as well as gasoline technologies and electronic vehicles testing.

Its researchers are working on a world-class scale, developing sensors for onboard diagnostics and doing advanced combustion research, Carder said.

They’re also working to develop a single-cylinder research engines for engine and combustion research, and a new optical engine “based on a production medium-duty impression-ignition engine,” according to Carder and an article on the university’s Benjamin M. Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources website. The department presented those engines research during its Real-World Emissions Technology Summit last month in Morgantown.

Politics and Social Media: Pros and Cons

Elizabeth Cohen, assistant professor of the Department of Communication Studies at WVU, discussed the psychology of social media, including how sharing election opinions affects voters, and how it affects our expectations of candidates.

When it comes to family, posts can definitely affect relationships, she said, especially since 65 percent of U.S. adults use social networking sites.

“Social network sites make us privy to information and conversations about friends’ and family’s political beliefs that can lead to conflict,” Cohen said.

But conflict isn’t always about how someone’s posts affects a family member directly. Rather, social networkers are more worried about how others’ posts affect the rest of their social network, she said — an example of the “third-person effect.”

“Facebook users engaged with an upsetting political post more often when they believed it had more influence on other people than on themselves,” Cohen said. “Political conflict appears to be motivated by a fear that other people will be influenced by an opinion.”

Expressing conflict on social media isn’t very effective in changing someone’s vote, though, she said.

“Social network sites are more commonly used to reinforce people’s existing beliefs and strengthen their political affiliations.” she said.

However, knowing that a friend votes does encourage others in the social network to vote, too.

Officials feel pressure from social networking “to share spontaneous, authentic moments that seem genuine, human and less manufactured,” she said.

Cohen advises those who use social media to practice “political civility” by being exposed to different perspectives.

“So, keep weak ties close and practice tolerance on social networks,” she said.

Which Fracking Water To Watch

Paul Ziemkiewicz, director, West Virginia Water Research Institute, says the general public often worries about the wrong water in the fracking process.

The water that becomes contaminated is what’s removed from the well, he explained, citing research from the Marcellus Shale Energy and Environmental Laboratory. It’s located along the Monongahela River in Morgantown, and its researchers are focused on improving production of natural gas and oil.

The university launched the four-acre lab in 2014, as a partnership with Northeast Natural Energy, the National Energy Technology Laboratory of the U.S. Department of Energy, and The Ohio State University, according to a June 26, 2015, article in “WVU Today” magazine.

Basically, it’s the water coming out of the well, called end-of-cycle water, that is contaminated, not the water going into the wells, Ziemkiewicz said. And the big issue is “what to do with the water coming out,” he said.

That’s because most of the water coming in is fresh water, and is close to a drinking-water standard, he said. But, when deep well-injection is done, “the water content changes a lot,” he said, due to the water picking up pockets of ancient water that contains sulfate.

These pockets of water — 100 million years old — are surrounded by clay containing the oil or gas that is being mined, Ziemkiewicz said.

Then later in the process, there is end-of-cycle water that contains a lot of sodium chloride and calcium. Then it gets a higher barium and strontium content, “and other stuff that’s not so good,” he said.

By the 160th day of fracking, the end-of-cycle water coming out is only 12 percent water, with the majority of it sodium, he said. “Its really (very) saline.”

“That water flowback in these wells is extremely dynamic,” Ziemkiewicz said. During the fracking process there is one week where there are 1,800 barrels coming out per day, he explained. That then drops off to 4-6 barrels per day.

The article describes fracking. “In the fracking process, shale gas is released by drilling a deep, vertical well, followed by drilling horizontally. Next, hydraulic fracturing uses pressurized water, sand and chemicals to crack subsurface rock and create fissures that release the natural gas, which is returned to the surface along with produced water.”

While drilling mud is recycled, there’s a disposal afterward that’s necessary, as well, Ziemkiewicz said. Those flowback solids “wind up in the bottom of ponds and tanks,” and have some radiation, he said.

It’s the white-looking silt that sits in these old, abandoned mine voids, that are of concern, he said.