Dear Friends and Colleagues,
The John and Willie Leone Family Department of Energy and Mineral Engineering continues to be one of the premier programs devoted to all aspects of energy and mineral exploration, production, utilization, risk analysis, economics, and environmental impact assessment.
The department boasts a rich history, extremely successful alumni, outstanding and award-winning faculty, and dedicated staff willing to take on all challenges that come their way. Its exceptionally talented students continue to scale new heights in multi-disciplinary research and creative pursuits. We live in exciting times, with major shifts both in our energy landscape and our perceptions regarding sustainability and stewardship of Earth’s resources. The department continues to evolve to address these challenges and pursue exciting opportunities.
The department of Energy and Mineral Engineering is made up of five resident programs and two online programs. At the University Park campus, we have Energy Engineering (ENENG), Energy Business and Finance (EBF), Environmental Systems Engineering (ENVSE), Petroleum and Natural Gas Engineering (PNGE) and Mining Engineering (MNGE). Our two online programs are an undergraduate program in Energy and Sustainability Policy (ESP) and a graduate MPS degree program in Renewable Energy and Sustainability Systems (RESS). There are also MS and PhD graduate options that relate to these five resident undergraduate degree programs. These programs consistently rank among the best in their respective areas, and their excellent quality is evidenced by the high undergraduate and graduate enrollment numbers that exceed 1,000 students. Our mining engineering program (MNGE) is currently ranked #2 in the United States by the latest QS World University survey, while petroleum engineering program (PNGE) is ranked #5 in the US and #19 worldwide. The unique combination of these seven programs within one department offers advantages in collaboration that do not exist in any university worldwide.
Energy Transition: The discovery in 1859 of producible oil by Drake near Titusville, Pennsylvania ushered in a new way of life, providing a key ingredient for many commercial applications from transportation to clothing to pharmaceuticals. Fossil fuel use, and in particular the availability of clean and ample energy, has been correlated to a significant improvement in the quality of life and in lifting many out of poverty. The discovery of oil is even credited to having saved the whales from extinction (see Drake State Park visitor center).
The combustion of fossil fuels for the production of electricity and transportation use, however, has increased the concentration of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere, and there is concern that this increase could cause global climate change. While global climate predictions of a new ice age and now warming in my lifetime have not been very accurate, we should strive for the cleanest environment possible. There are numerous sources of greenhouse gases, including animals and landfills, but the focus has largely been on transitioning away from fossil fuel use for energy production.
The discovery of the Marcellus gas shale in Pennsylvania, the second largest gas field in the world, and the development of hydraulic fracturing technology around 2008 has ushered in a new era of natural gas use. Natural gas is substantially cleaner than both coal and oil, producing few toxins when burned and significantly less carbon dioxide. The use of natural gas is likely to be one of the keys to begin a transition away from oil and coal. Increased use of natural gas in Pennsylvania and in the US, along with improved smog control measures, has reduced smog and other toxic gas concentrations by nearly half since 1985 (U.S. EPA National Emissions Inventory Air Pollutant Emissions Trends Data).
Still, there is a need to develop renewable and more sustainable energy that depends on the sun and wind, along with other processes such as electrochemistry, nuclear reactions, and hydrogen combustion. Such technologies can produce less greenhouse gases but require significantly increased mining and chemical use to obtain common and rare earth minerals for solar panels, batteries, and wind turbines. For example, 200 tons of rock must be mined to obtain 1 ton of copper, one of the key ingredients in electricity transmission. Mining requires heavy equipment, which currently burn fossil fuels, and refinement of rare earth minerals requires toxic solvents and a complicated multi-step refinement process, which is generally done outside the US. Mining also generates significant tailings (waste). Further, the key source of hydrogen is currently from natural gas. While producing no greenhouse gases, nuclear power plants require the disposal of high-level nuclear waste that can last for millions of years. Thus, all aspects of environmental damage, not just greenhouse gases, must be considered.
The production of sufficient energy for an increasing number of people in the world, while reducing greenhouse gases and avoiding future environmental catastrophes, is a very complex problem that our department is uniquely situated to examine. One of the most important research questions is the energy mix required going forward to meet our energy needs, while reducing environmental damage. All energy sources will be needed in the future, but how that energy is delivered is likely to change. For example, use of electric cars is likely to increase, which has the advantage of reducing point sources of greenhouse gases, while the electricity for those cars may still come from large power plants that burn fossil fuels including coal. Reducing point sources allows for better capture of carbon dioxide and other toxins, which can be stored in underground reservoirs. The EME department is positioned well to consider these environmental impacts.
Research Excellence: As a research-intensive department, EME attracts resources from both internal and external sources. Our faculty engage in multi-disciplinary research across program areas, departments and colleges within the university. Several world-class institutes, such as the Penn State Institute for the Energy and the Environment, Earth and Environmental Systems Institute, Materials Research Institute, and the Energy Institute, provide extensive and state-of-the-art infrastructure for performing transformational research that addresses societal challenges. The department is focused on strengthening ties with these institutes by providing in-house sabbaticals for faculty to develop new research directions, proposals and collaboration that will benefit the institutes while at the same time enhancing the department’s research profile.
Sustainability: Our department is uniquely positioned from both a policy and technical perspective to embed sustainability as a core value in all facets of energy and mineral engineering. Whether it be the development of environmentally sustainable technologies for natural resource extraction or the development of systems engineering concepts on the production of energy from alternate sources, we have the expertise to study the environmental impact, assess the risks, perform systems-level optimization, perform a sophisticated economic analysis of decisions, and propose policies that take into account the engineering as well as the social aspects. We must strengthen such systems-level understanding and technologies and encapsulate that knowledge in capstone design courses that take students through the entire system design and implementation life cycle.
One of the keys to sustainability is recycling of metals from energy equipment such as solar panels, batteries, and wind turbines. Current recycling efforts have been minimal worldwide but must become a significant focus if these energy sources are to be sustainable; as like fossil fuels, minerals, especially those classified as rare, will not last forever. Limited recycling will mean more toxic waste disposal and higher energy costs.
Environmental Solutions: The Environmental Systems Engineering group focuses on resource recovery, remediation of waste, and environmental health and safety. In the area of resource recovery, interests include the exploration of new technologies for the extraction and recovery of critical materials and rare earth elements from mine waste including cobalt and manganese which are used in the production of lithium-ion batteries. The goal of characterizing, understanding, and applying the underlying geochemistry is common across several areas including rare earth elements, enhanced oil recovery, and CO2 storage. Work related to the treatment of waste includes the characterization, fate, and remediation of oil-derived hydrocarbons in water, soil, and sediment, and the use of bioremediation (e.g., algae-based treatment systems) for addressing difficult to treat waste streams such as high-ammonium-strength wastewaters from food processing, fertilizer and plastic industries, and landfill leachate. An overarching focus on environmental health and safety includes the development of exposure assessment instrumentation for airborne hazards including dusts (e.g., PM10, PM2.5) to reduce the occurrence of lung disease in exposed workers, quantitative risk analysis, risk assessment for exposure to complex aerosol mixtures and nanoparticles, and examination of the efficiency and efficacy of policies aimed at protecting worker and public health and safety.
Our department also is taking the lead in the use of machine learning to conduct climate change impact assessments. This is a relatively nascent field, but one that has the potential to provide critical information for planners and policymakers.
In Summary: The complexity of providing cheap and abundant energy to the world, while also preserving our environment is one of the most critical areas of research facing us today. This challenge will require our collective thinking and action. I look forward to exchanging ideas regarding these issues with you and value your involvement in defining the future of the EME department.
About Russell T. Johns
Russell T. Johns is the interim head of the John and Willie Leone Family Department of Energy and Mineral Engineering and the George E. Trimble Chair of Energy and Mineral Sciences at the Department of Energy and Mineral Engineering at Penn State. He recently served as Chair of the Petroleum and Natural Gas Engineering Program from 2015 to 2018, Distinguished SPE Lecturer for 2019–2020, and Editor-In-Chief for SPE technical journals from 2018–2020.
Before his current position, he served on the petroleum engineering faculty at The University of Texas at Austin from 1995 to 2010. He also has nine years of industrial experience as a petrophysical engineer with Shell Oil and as a hydrogeologist for Colenco Power Consulting in Baden, Switzerland. He holds a B.S. degree in electrical engineering from Northwestern University and M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in petroleum engineering and water resources from Stanford University. He has over 250 publications in enhanced oil recovery, thermodynamics, and phase behavior, unconventional gas engineering, multiphase flow in porous media, and well testing. Johns received the SPE Ferguson medal in 1993, the Society of Petroleum Engineers (SPE) Distinguished Member award in 2009, the SPE Faculty Pipeline award in 2013, the 2016 SPE international award in Reservoir Description and Dynamics, the Wilson Excellence in Research award from the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences in 2018, the prestigious IOR Pioneer Award from SPE in 2022, and the Anthony F. Lucas Gold medal in 2023, SPE’s international major technical award. He is currently the director of the Enhanced Oil Recovery consortium in the EMS Energy Institute at Penn State.