A technology to remotely monitor conditions at energy-rich Marcellus Shale gas wells to help ensure compliance with environmental requirements has been developed through a research partnership funded by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE).

The technology – which involves three wireless monitoring modules to measure volatile organic compounds, dust, light and sound – currently is being tested at a Marcellus Shale drilling site in Washington County, Pa. It was developed by Dr. Michael McCawley, a research associate professor in West Virginia University’s (WVU) Department of Community Medicine, as part of the National Energy Technology Laboratory’s Regional University Alliance for Energy Technology Innovation (NETL-RUA). NETL is the research laboratory for DOE’s Office of Fossil Energy.

Shale gas is natural gas trapped inside formations of shale, fine-grained sedimentary rocks that can be rich sources of petroleum and natural gas. Shale gas production, which has increased 12-fold over the past decade, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, is contributing to a rejuvenation of domestic natural gas supply. The Marcellus formation is a large shale deposit (estimated to be a third of the nation’s recoverable resource) located in the subsurface beneath much of Ohio, West Virginia, Pennsylvania and New York, and smaller areas of Maryland, Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia.

The project is significant because it streamlines a process to remotely monitor shale gas well drilling sites in areas where the terrain typically hinders monitoring, and the lack of nearby power and phone lines makes traditional monitoring difficult. Having remote monitoring available becomes even more significant considering that West Virginia, for example, has more than 1,400 Marcellus Shale gas wells, and permits have been issued for 1,200 more.

Although the number of possible monitors that can be networked is virtually unlimited, the remote monitoring system at the Washington County site consists of three wireless monitoring modules. Each module consists of a radio transceiver, a 12-volt battery-powered monitoring device, and a battery, all encased in a bright orange box. A two-foot-by-5-foot solar panel maintains the battery charge, even on cloudy days. A base station module, which houses a notebook-sized computer with a cell phone modem, receives data from the monitoring devices, and facilitates the remote monitoring, which can be accessed from a desktop computer at WVU.

Prior to the drilling effort in Washington County, WVU had been testing the remote wireless system for the past year. Its success during testing demonstrates its ability to be a cost-effective, portable, user-friendly, off-the-shelf technology applicable to a variety of monitoring projects. To date, at least one major company has demonstrated an interest in the technology.

NETL has spearheaded efforts to develop technologies associated with shale gas extraction, monitoring and environmental protection. NETL historically has collaborated with industry to advance horizontal drilling techniques by drilling the first-ever Appalachian Basin directional shale well, as well as introducing techniques such as hydraulic fracturing to eastern shales. Associated with these advances, NETL has addressed environmental concerns by studying air emissions at drilling sites, and other environmental issues.