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WMU expands facility for geological study

April 26, 2006

KALAMAZOO--Since 1982, a small group of scientists at Western Michigan University has dedicated untold hours to preserving a critical part of Michigan's geological past.

With the help of various students over the years, the group has been collecting and collating rock samples and paper records that trace the history of oil and gas exploration in the state and provide a wealth of data on what lies below the feet of Michiganders.

Now this unique geological facility, which is the state's preeminent source for data on Michigan's subsurface geology, has a new home and a broader mandate for serving the state and nation.

The core laboratory has been incorporated into WMU's recently established Michigan Geological Repository for Research and Education, located on leased property at 5272 W. Michigan Avenue in Kalamazoo just east of the University's West Hills Athletic Club.

The MGRRE was created to reflect the core laboratory's growing body of research and collections of physical materials. Headed by Dr. G. Michael Grammer, associate professor of geosciences, it encompasses the laboratory's original work, as well as the University's educational, research and outreach activities in related Department of Geosciences areas.

The laboratory was founded 24 years ago by its current director, Dr. William B. Harrison III, a retired WMU professor of geosciences, and had been housed in WMU's West Hall.

Initially, the laboratory's main goal was to acquire, preserve and use materials from Michigan's oil and gas wells for use in energy research and education. Since then, the facility has amassed tens of thousands of feet of core material and cuttings from wells drilled across the state and thousands of related well documents.

"Our collections have grown and so has our collective expertise," Harrison says. "We have been very fortunate to welcome several well-known research faculty members to our geosciences department, and they have greatly broadened the scope of our research, using the invaluable resources in our collections."

Those resources are more important than ever to the nation as well as the state, Harrison adds, noting that they provide one-of-a-kind data researchers can use for such purposes as boosting domestic oil and gas production and converting depleted wells into underground gas storage areas for the U.S. strategic petroleum reserve.

"The value of our materials and our faculty's expertise is shown by more than $3 million in funded research in the past five years alone," Grammer says. "But this is just the beginning now that we've acquired a large building that can accommodate our varied activities and growing collections."

Currently, the MGRRE is the focal point for five major research projects involving geosciences faculty.

Grammer leads a research team investigating a subsurface formation known to produce significant oil and gas. His work has economic and national security implications because helping producers locate oil and gas fields will reduce America's dependence on foreign oil.

Associate Professor David Barnes leads an environmental research project aimed at reducing atmospheric greenhouse gases by safely storing them in Michigan's unique underground rock formations.

Barnes, Grammer and Harrison are working on a project to take one greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide, out of the earth's atmosphere and use it to make oil and gas production economically viable in non-working hydrocarbon fields. They are studying the feasibility of injecting the CO2 into existing wells to force out more oil and gas, creating new energy supplies without having to drill new wells.

Barnes also has teamed up with state personnel to research aquifers in a three-county area near Lansing. Their work will help local governments determine how vulnerable their aquifers are to known surface contamination and will produce 3D maps to aid officials in identifying, evaluating and protecting their groundwater resources.

Professor Ronald B. Chase is leading a project with Professor Alan Kehew at three locations near South Haven, Mich., that focuses on reducing lakeshore erosion. The project involves state-of-the-art slope monitoring to study the processes of bluff failure.

Harrison says given the MGRRE's already impressive collections of one-of-a-kind subsurface samples and data, its mandate to conduct a broad range of environmental- and energy-related research is a natural progression for the facility.

And with a large new building, the geological repository will not only be able to house all of the core laboratory's existing collections, but also accept pending donations from the State of Michigan, other Michigan universities, a repository in Texas, the U S Geological Survey and private companies.

"This facility is doing a tremendous service by bringing so much valuable expertise and information together," Harrison says. "The materials we're preserving here have implications for reducing water contamination, increasing energy production, locating mineral deposits and other uses we can't even imagine yet."

Although the MGRRE has a new home and an expanded mission compared to the original core laboratory, Harrison says Michigan's oil and gas heritage will continue to drive much of the newly created repository's work.

"In addition to Michigan having more underground storage capability for the nation's strategic petroleum reserve than any other state, we're one of America's top 15 hydrocarbon-producing states," he says. "Oil and gas production is a $2 billion enterprise here, and it benefits all our citizens. It provides more than 10,000 industry-related jobs, helps underwrite the Department of Environmental Quality, and in exchange for mineral leasing and production on state lands, has paid more than $550 million into the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund."

Dr. Mohamed Sultan, chairperson and professor of geosciences, adds that finding a suitable home for the organization was a group effort made possible by WMU's administration and widespread off-campus support.

"The facility wouldn't be where it is today without the collaboration of industry donors, Michigan legislators, and governmental agency representatives who provided the necessary funding and grassroots advocacy with the Department of Energy," Sultan says. "This collaboration allowed us to acquire and furnish a building that will meet our needs long into the future."

Harrison notes that the building includes ample storage for the MGRRE's collections, dedicated laboratory space for faculty and students, a resource library, and a high-tech seminar room for the geosciences department's technology transfer workshops and public outreach work.

Media contact: Jeanne Baron, (269) 387-8400, jeanne.baron@wmich.edu

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