April 9, 2024

Schulich professor works toward a future where sustainability and oil and gas coexist

Nancy Chen hopes her research drives future innovations in exploration and production globally
A headshot of a woman with long black hair and glasses
Nancy Chen Courtesy Nancy Chen

A Schulich School of Engineering professor is using advanced techniques such as numerical simulations, mathematical optimization and machine-learning approaches to create more sustainable methods of oil and gas exploration and production.

The challenge is to mitigate environmental impact while promoting sustainable approaches in the field, says Dr. Nancy Chen, PhD, with the Department of Chemical and Petroleum Engineering.

“We need to find ways to mitigate the environmental impact and promote environmentally responsible approaches,” she says. “My work aims to enhance the efficiency while minimizing the environmental footprint of those operations so it balances the economic benefits while protecting the environment and supporting social well-being.” 

Chen agrees we cannot simply cut off using oil and gas, but she hopes her work can make production more sustainable. “We have to meet that energy demand. It's there and I have to heat up my house in the winter. I have to drive to work. It's just that demand,” she says. “You cannot just ignore and say, ‘Hey, we just want renewable everywhere.’ We want renewable, but, at the same time, we have to look for the ways to sustainably explore the oil and gas resources.”  

Chen’s methods of building sustainability in the oil and gas industry rely on mathematical numerical models to simulate how different processes can be changed. An example of this is Chen’s work with hydraulic fracking in shale gas formations. 

“So, we minimize the water usage, we minimize the land interruption of the land usage and stuff like that, while maximizing the production out of the wells,” Chen says. She is also working to try and prevent earthquakes in hydraulic fracturing.  

To get these results, Chen built a mathematical numerical model to simulate the responses of reservoirs used in fracking. She also uses machine-learning approaches, which means collecting data from the field and using machine-learning models to predict the response.

As Chen considers efficiency when creating these models and not just environmental impact, her methods help decrease company cost and therefore promote industry adoption.

Chen says Canada, with its stricter environmental laws, cleaner methods of producing oil and gas, and use of advanced technologies, is in a good position to help produce energy for other countries that currently use more environmentally damaging methods.

I know a lot of countries that are still relying on coal-powered electricity plants,” she says. “So, if we can supply those demand or supply those requirements by using our cleaner energy, I think it's good on the global scale.

“It also helps that global warming is not just Canada warming or a particular country warming. It's global warming.”

Chen hopes her research can create a more environmentally friendly world and support the economy simultaneously. 

“I hope my work could drive innovations that facilitate the evolving landscape of clean and efficient energy production,” she says. “I hope we could help mitigate the environmental impacts, reduce carbon emissions and contribute to global efforts to combat the climate change.”  

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