Cavazza received the international recognition for work based on research he did for his Schreyer honors thesis.
His paper, “Hydraulic Fracturing could Result in Cleaner Streams in Pennsylvania,” expanded on the research done on how the natural gas industry could use acid mine drainage from abandoned coal mines in hydraulic fracturing, or ‘fracking,’ a technique used to extract oil or gas from deep underground reservoirs.
During fracking, a mixture of chemical additives and water is injected into underground shale formations. A portion of the fluid, known as flowback, returns to the surface. To increase efficiency, companies sometimes mix fresh water, which could come from nearby streams, into the flowback fluid and reuse the mixture. His research demonstrated that mixing flowback with acid mine drainage results in a number of beneficial reactions which remove the undesirable constituents of each. Replacing this fresh water with acid mine drainage, Cavazza argues in his paper, could keep clean water in streams and reduce the volume of acid mine drainage.
Acid mine drainage is the main pollutant of surface water in the mid-Atlantic region and has degraded more than 5,500 miles of streams in Pennsylvania.
“Companies should always be looking at ways to make the industry more environmentally friendly, and this is one of those ways that has the potential to do that,” said Cavazza, who now works for Shell in Houston as a petrophysicist. “It’s an idea that — if proven to work — could make people think outside the box about other issues.
Cavazza said his research helped him land the job with Shell. During an early round of interviews on campus, he found out the company representative, also a Penn State graduate, did extensive research on acid mine drainage.
“We had a similar connection, and the whole dynamic of the interview really changed after that. We ended up talking about our research instead of just following the standard interview script. It never hurts to have that type of experience on your resume,” he said.
Even in Houston, the College of Earth and Minerals Sciences (EMS) grad is surrounded by Penn State alumni.
“EMS at Penn State is really well known for producing folks who not only know the materials but also have really been challenged throughout their schooling,” he said. “There are a lot of Penn State people in my group, which I think is a testament to our program.”
Cavazza said the methods detailed in his paper are a perfect fit for Pennsylvania because areas with the most acid mine drainage are often near natural gas wells.
He’s glad the paper won because it calls attention to the research and the work he, his faculty adviser Li Li, former associate professor of petroleum and natural gas engineering, and many others at Penn State put into it.
“I had so many people helping me get the work done for my thesis that it was a way to really pay them back. It wasn’t just my award. It was everyone who worked on it,” Cavazza said.