DOE drilling project studies ND rock 16,000 feet down

By Patrick C. Miller | January 20, 2016

Two entities with a great deal of experience in the Bakken will be working with the Battelle laboratories on a U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) drilling project in North Dakota that’s not looking for oil.

Battelle’s partners on the DOE research project near Rugby, North Dakota, are the University of North Dakota (UND) Energy & Environmental Research Center (EERC), Schlumberger and Solexperts, a Swiss geologic testing company. Headquartered in Columbus, Ohio, Battelle is the world’s largest nonprofit research and development organization.

Rod Osborne, Battelle’s energy business line manager, said that although some of the drilling done by Schlumberger will be similar to that in the Bakken for oil and gas, its purpose is to gather data on crystalline bedrock formations 16,000 feet below the surface. DOE will study their suitability for nuclear waste storage.

In fact, Osborne said the site was selected because it was far from oil and gas activity in the Williston Basin.

“DOE didn’t want to go into an area that already had a lot of drilling activity,” he explained. “They wanted it in a seismically inactive area with no known faults or fractures deep underground.”

The $35 million, five-year DOE deep borehole project will occur on 20 acres of state-owned land. Osborne said work should begin this summer with drilling scheduled to start in the fall.

“At various depths, we will drop instruments down the hole—like oil and gas—and measuring various rock properties,” he said. “We’ll be pulling larger pieces of core out of the well.”

The EERC’s past work with Battelle helped identify North Dakota as logical site for the project, Osborne said.  

“We needed to be able to partner with somebody in that area,” he noted. “We’re each running very large projects on carbon storage assessment for the Department of Energy. It just made sense to have further conversations with EERC and look at specific locations in the state of North Dakota.”

Osborne stressed that the purpose of the test is to study the concept of storing some of the specialized nuclear waste produced by DOE labs deep underground. He noted that quantity of waste would be far less than is produced by a nuclear power plant. Geothermal energy development will be another potential application, according to Battelle.

“This is a data gathering project,” he said. “There is no nuclear waste that will be used on this phase or the next phase. This is a drilling and geologic test, and that’s the focus.”

The idea of storing nuclear waste deep underground was conceived by scientists more than 40 years ago. In 2012, the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future recommended research into the possibility of using deep boreholes “particularly as a disposal alternative for certain forms of waste that have essentially no potential for re-use.”

The field test will provide key insights into crosscutting subsurface science and engineering challenges such as drilling techniques, wellbore stability and sealing and subsurface characterization. The research will examine the hydrogeological, geochemical and geo-mechanical characteristics of the rock formation.

Osborne said cuttings and other information gathered during the drilling will be stored at the North Dakota Geological Survey Wilson Laird Core and Sample Library on the UND campus. 


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