West Virginia University Assistant Professor Shikha Sharma has received $265,000 through the National Science Foundation to study the Marcellus Shale, one of the nation’s largest reservoirs of natural gas, and examine potential sources of pollution that could result from natural gas drilling.
The award supports Sharma’s Stable Isotope Research Laboratory which is advancing research and training in the earth sciences with a primary focus on the energy and environment topics targeted by the National Science Foundation’s Science, Engineering and Education for Sustainability program.
In her lab, Sharma examines isotopes, atoms of the same element that have the same number of protons, but a different number of neutrons. Isotopes may weigh more or less than their elemental counterparts with equal numbers of protons and neutrons, giving them unique properties. The study of isotopes can help us better understand the sources of natural gas and geothermal energy and track sources of potential pollution stemming from energy development.
The grant will fund the purchase of new equipment to analyze the isotope content of individual compounds, including hydrocarbons and dissolved natural gases.
“The addition of this new instrumentation is greatly strengthening the ongoing energy research in our region,” Sharma said. “The Marcellus Shale has not been a direct target for intense exploration until recently. It has not been sufficiently studied, and neither have the environmental impacts associated with its development.”
Many people are concerned about possible impacts of shale gas drilling on water quality. Sharma’s isotope research could not only help find areas where gas is likely to be more abundant, but also help identify the specific sources of gas and pollutants entering ground water and streams.
This award opens up new research frontiers across the state and the region. It also benefits the programs of a talented and diverse group of WVU research faculty who are currently engaged in stable isotope research. The combined research, teaching and hands-on training will provide opportunities for students to develop a better understanding of basic isotope science and its application in several science, technology, engineering and math disciplines while contributing to the growth of the Stable Isotope Laboratory.
As part of the grant, Sharma will hire a post-doctoral scientist to develop new research methods and manage her laboratory. Doctoral candidate Ruiqian Chen is working on Marcellus Shale biogeochemistry and four master’s students, Andrea Sack, Adam Pelak, Lindsey Bowman and Stephen Henry, are working on water quality and stray gas issues associated with Marcellus Shale gas drilling and efficient development of geothermal energy.
“I came to WVU specifically to work with Dr. Sharma on this project,” Bowman said. “This research project is so relevant to West Virginia and the U.S.’s focus on unconventional energy resource development, which in this area are fossil fuels from the Marcellus shale. Through this research we hope to gain a better understanding of the intersection between oil and gas development and preserving environmental integrity.”
“Dr. Sharma’s continued dedication to bring equipment and instrumentation to the WVU stable isotope lab helps our research efforts tremendously. In the future, I know the skills that I have gained by working with Dr. Sharma and my experience with a wide range of instrumentation and analysis techniques will be well regarded by potential employers.”
Sharma came to WVU’s Department of Geology and Geography as an assistant professor in 2010. Sharma completed her graduate studies at Center of Advanced Studies in Geology in Lucknow University, India and did her post-doctoral work at Iowa State University.
For more information, contact Shikha Sharma, at 304-293-6717 or email@example.com
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