Interview with David Northrop, Formerly of Sandia National Labs

On the Partnership Office That Facilitated Public-Private Collaboration


The photo above is of a fracking site in Colorado, where the Department of Energy conducted the Western Gas Sands Multi-Well Experiment.

October 27, 2014 | Loren King,

David A. Northrop completed his BS, MS, and PhD in chemistry at the University of Chicago. He started working at Sandia National Lab in 1964 and worked there until his retirement in 1998. During his tenure, Northrop was heavily involved in fracture observation and shale mapping systems. In the following interview, Northrop talks about the early days of Sandia’s involvement in natural gas research, and the unique Partnership Office that facilitated public-private collaboration.

How did Sandia National Lab become involved in natural gas research?

Sandia was originally a nuclear weapons research and development facility (a spin-off from Los Alamos after WWII) and was overseen by the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC). Following the Arab oil embargo in 1973, the AEC asked Sandia to explore whether some of its weapons technology could be applied to energy.

Sandia’s first investments into fossil energy ran between 1974 and 1977. Funding originally came from BuMines, which, along with AEC, became ERDA in 1974, which all became DOE in ‘77. My group looked into applying weapon system technologies to better understand in-situ energy recovery processes. We developed instrumentation techniques for underground coal-gasification. Another group was tasked with applying sensor technology originally developed to monitor troop movements in the Vietnam War to underground mapping of hydraulic fractures. For example, by sending electrical current through the created fracture, they could measure its orientation through a surface sensor array. 

What kind of research did Sandia do in the area of fracking and shale gas?

Two initiatives were especially important. The first was the Mineback experiments at DOE’s Nevada Test Site in the late 1970s. Sandia created an underground laboratory to understand the nature of the hydraulic fracturing process. This research was so valuable because mineback allowed direct observation of the fractures. As a result, we were able to show that rock properties in themselves did not control a fracture –– something opposite of what people believed at the time! Rather, we found high in-situ stresses to be the major barrier to fracture propagation. Thanks to this research, stress profiles are used in hydraulic fracking design today.

The second project was the Multi-Well Experiment that we conducted in the 1980s as part of the Western Gas Sands Program. At that point, attempts to conduct massive hydraulic fracturing in these Western basins had not been successful so DOE decided a field laboratory was necessary. Three close-spaced wells, some 115 to 215 feet apart, allowed unique geologic description, well testing, and the early work on the seismic mapping of hydraulic fractures. 

For the latter, Sandia built on early Los Alamos National Laboratory geothermal work to develop a mapping system that used a single three-component borehole seismometer to determine direction and distance of small seismic events that occur during the fracturing process. While the WGSP was only looking at sandstone formations, these shared lots of characteristics with shale formations, especially when it comes to the low porosity, permeability and fractures –– both natural and hydraulic.

How did Sandia and Los Alamos work with industries?

At both Sandia and Los Alamos national labs, we were always on the look out for ways to improve coordination with industry. With my colleague, Robert Hanold from Los Alamos, we were charged with creating a partnership office specifically for collaboration with the oil (and later gas) industry.

What were the stated goals of this partnership office?

We came up with three key objectives for this partnership program: transfer technology from the national laboratories to all facets of US petroleum industry; develop innovative mechanisms to expedite this transfer; and close coordination to ensure lab research met industry needs.

Of course, those are just the objectives. To actually achieve these goals, we came up with two operating principles: the first principle was joint projects with no cross-funding. The national labs would be funded by DOE and the industry would fund its own teams. For example, the industry might drill the well and cut core and the labs would do the core analysis. This made partnership projects far more effective and smoother than the more traditional DOE cost-sharing programs (for which just the proposal stage could take more than two years!).

The second principle was to use industry review panels to evaluate joint projects, not DOE. This industry review process was extremely streamlined. Each joint proposal had to be limited to two pages and sent to a panel of 12 to 15 industry representatives to review. At a one-day meeting, this industry panel would hear between 6 and 8 proposal presentations. Each panelist would then complete a one page evaluation, ending with a numerical ranking. Shortly thereafter, the partnership office (ie Bob and I) would then review the industry input, allocate DOE funding to the best projects and propose the result to DOE. In almost all cases, DOE would accept our recommendations.

This paradigm was hailed a success by all –– so much so that by 1998 it had expanded to include nine national laboratories, five DOE technology areas, and more than 50 collaborative projects.

That’s fascinating. What kind of projects would the program fund?

The partnership worked on a wide variety of projects for the gas and oil industry, such as helping develop new borehole systems or better reservoir management tools. Relevant to shale gas, the partnership helped coordinate an industry-wide project to optimize a tiltmeter system that could map fractures at a much larger depth than pre-existing technology. The partnership was also key to give industry access to very advanced (at the time) computation capabilities that were only available at national labs. Such capabilities were essential to get high quality images of reservoirs and for 3-D seismic mapping.

What happened to the program?

The partnership program went on using the same principles and processes through 2005 –– some 18 years  –– an amazing duration for a DOE program. Clearly the partnership's basic idea of joint national lab-industry projects where DOE funds the labs and no federal funds go to industry, coupled with a streamlined proposal process, review and prioritization by industry, and flexible only-as-required arrangements is a proven paradigm.

Read other interviews with shale pioneeers:

Interview with William Burnett, Formerly of the Gas Research Institute

Interview with Bob Hanold, Formerly of Los Alamos National Laboratory

Interview with Norm Warpinski, Director of Technology at Pinnacle

Interview with Dan Steward, Former Mitchell Energy Vice President

Interview with Terry Engelder, Professor at Penn State

Interview with Alex Crawley, Former Program Director for the Energy Research and Development

Photo courtesy of David Northrop.