Amy Plechacek’s passion for the environment began at a young age. She spent many long days back home in rural Boyd, Wisconsin, doing everything from hunting and fishing to collecting rocks. Because of this, she is driven to investigate potential sources of water contamination during the hydraulic fracturing life cycle.
Plechacek is an undergraduate Geosciences major in the University Honors program who works as a part of the Hydrogeosciences Research Group. Under the guidance of Dr. Madeline Schreiber and Dr. John Chermak, she is researching how trace elements may be released from shale during hydraulic fracturing of natural gas, potentially affecting our water supplies. Hydraulic fracturing is a process where millions of gallons of water plus sand and chemicals are pumped underground to break apart shale in order to release the natural gas.
Shale, a sedimentary rock, can contain natural gas but also toxic trace elements, such as arsenic, cobalt, chromium, zinc and others. The trace elements are often concentrated in a mineral called pyrite. When exposed to oxygen and water, pyrite can oxidize, potentially releasing trace elements to water. Although this process occurs naturally, hydraulic fracturing may enhance pyrite oxidation, thus accelerating trace element release.
The trace elements may be released from the shale into the flowback water, which is pumped to the surface after a hydraulic fracturing event. On its way back up to the surface, this flowback water has the potential to leak from improperly cased wells, allowing toxic trace elements to enter shallower aquifers. Flowback water is often stored at the surface in retention basins, which if not built or properly managed, could leak into water supplies. Another concern is the drilling into the shale to create the production well, as it produces shale cuttings which can become oxidized at the surface. This produces acid drainage, creating yet another avenue for the release of trace elements. Amy is looking to examine the potential mobilization mechanisms in order to find ways to protect water supplies in areas where hydraulic fracturing takes place.
The first step in Amy’s research was to analyze samples from the Marcellus Formation in Pennsylvania using laser ablation inductively-coupled plasma mass spectrometry (LA-ICPMS) in the Laboratory of the Fluids Research Group in the Department of Geosciences at Virginia Tech. To put it simply, the LA-ICPMS is a laser paired with a mass spectrometer. The LA-ICPMS is typically used to analyze fluid and melt inclusions; however, Plechacek is instead using it for analyzing trace elements of minerals within shales. She chose this technique because it analyzes solid samples, has low detection limits, and allows a large number of elements to be analyzed at the same time. After the data has been collected from the instrument, Plechacek uses a software program to reduce the data. She then conducts a statistical analysis and geochemical interpretation of the results. When her full analysis has been completed, she will shift her focus to publishing a manuscript on her findings.
Plechacek began her research in the summer of 2016 as a participant in one of Virginia Tech’s Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) Program. Amy also took part in the Geoscience Department’s first study abroad program last fall, where she spent a semester in Europe visiting Switzerland, Scotland, Ireland, Italy, Spain, and Poland. In addition to her course load consisting of Sedimentology-Stratigraphy, Elements of Structural Geology, Volcanic Processes, Mineralogy, and Italian, she continued to interpret the results of her research.
Studying on another continent broadened her perspective on water quality, as she got to see how water is managed in Europe. For Plechacek, seeing how water is managed in different parts of the world highlighted the relevancy of her research. However, her travels didn’t end when her journey abroad came to a close. In March of 2017, Amy presented her research at the Dennis Dean Undergraduate Research and Creative Scholarship Conference held at Virginia Tech. Her performance earned her a spot at the 12th Annual Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) Meeting of the Minds Conference, held at Duke University, where she was recognized for her achievements in research and creative scholarship. She also presented her results at the Southeastern Section of the Geological Society of America meeting in Richmond VA.
When considering whether to increase our usage of natural gas derived from hydraulic fracturing, it is important to look at how will it shape the future of our world and its ever-growing population. According to Plechacek, this is where science literacy becomes very important. If more people become well versed in the science affecting our environment, we will be more successful in finding a balance between economic and public health.
Why is water management essential? It’s a finite resource. Understanding the mechanisms of water contamination can help us prevent future issues we may face with a rapidly growing population and rising demand for water supplies as well as climate change that will affect the distribution of water across the surface of the Earth. If not addressed, water contamination can become quite difficult to manage and thus, expensive to treat.
“I want to use my research to educate people so that they can make the most informed decisions possible when it comes to how they get their energy,” said Plechacek.
After she finishes her undergraduate degree this fall, Plechacek is looking to get her master’s degree in hydrogeology with the ultimate goal of working for the U.S. Geological Survey. Most recently, she has taken an interest in studying the potential impacts of energy production and resource extraction on water quality, with a particular interest in groundwater chemistry. Because water quality is a global issue, Plechacek says she would be very open to working in other countries during her career as a hydrogeologist.
Article by Savannah Padgett, written during ENGL 4824: Science Writing in Spring 2017 as part of a collaboration between Fralin and the Department of English at Virginia Tech.