Research Findings

Effective Monitoring for Leaky Oil and Gas Wells

Fluctuations in atmospheric pressure can heavily influence how much natural gas leaks from wells below the ground surface at oil and gas sites, according to UBC research. However, current monitoring strategies do not take this phenomenon into account, and therefore may be under‑ or over‑estimating the true magnitude of gas emissions.

Testing at the field research station
Testing at the field research station

The unintentional leakage of natural gas from oil and gas wells into the surrounding subsurface – known as fugitive gas migration – is a major environmental concern that can lead to groundwater contamination and the emission of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

“Currently, subsurface gas migration is monitored using infrequent or short‑term location‑restrictive measurements,” says Olenka Forde, a geological sciences PhD student and lead author of the study. “Our study shows that the magnitude of gas emissions to the atmosphere can depend on atmospheric pressure before and during the time of monitoring, so short‑term, one‑time measurements may not be representative of average emissions.”

Variations in atmospheric pressure tend to compress or expand soil gas, with the most significant impact at sites with deep water tables, explains Forde. During a high‑pressure system, soil gas is compressed and pushes leaked natural gas deeper underground, where it will likely not be detected at the surface. When atmospheric pressure declines, natural gas trapped below the surface during the previous high‑pressure conditions can escape to the atmosphere, contributing to greenhouse gas emissions.

To evaluate this effect, the team ran a field experiment in an area of significant historic and ongoing oil and gas development near Hudson’s Hope, in northern BC. Over a period of five days, 30 cubic metres of natural gas (98.3 per cent methane) was continuously injected 12 metres below the ground surface. Atmospheric pressure and methane emissions were then continuously measured for 24 days during and after gas injection. The researchers controlled for depth and rate of well leakage, which are key factors that influence fugitive gas migration.

“We found that the magnitude and duration of atmospheric pressure changes directly influenced the amount of natural gas coming out the ground and being emitted into the atmosphere,” says Forde. “Under high pressure conditions, methane emissions decreased, sometimes even below the detection limit. But when atmospheric pressure decreased, methane emissions increased rapidly – at times more than 20‑fold in less than 24 hours.”

As a result, continuous monitoring over a longer period of time is key. “This will help to more accurately detect and evaluate gas migrations and emissions and thus, the risks posed by leaking oil and gas wells,” says Forde.

There are over four million onshore hydrocarbon wells around the world, a portion of which are known to suffer loss of structural integrity, which can lead to this type of subsurface leakage and resulting greenhouse gas emissions.

“The results of our study allow us to move towards refining and improving regulations and monitoring methods,” says co‑author Aaron Cahill, co‑director of the Energy and Environment Research Initiative at UBC. “This will help determine which leaky wells should be prioritized for remedial action to limit the most substantial greenhouse gas emissions.”

Roadmap for BC Hydrogen Supply Network

Transportation is the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in BC. Researchers at UBC have developed a hydrogen supply chain model that can enable the adoption of zero‑emission, hydrogen‑powered cars – transforming them from a novelty into everyday transportation in just 30 years.

The researchers have provided an analysis of the infrastructure needed to support hydrogen cars, SUVs and mini vans in BC. They recommend a refueling infrastructure extending from Prince George in the north to Kamloops and Vancouver in the south and Victoria in the west. Production plants would capture by‑product hydrogen from chemical plants or produce it from water electrolysis and steam methane reforming. A network of refueling stations would be established to serve consumers in major urban centres.

“Hydrogen‑powered vehicles are a strong alternative to battery electric vehicles, which don’t always comply with fast‑refueling, long‑distance travel or cold weather requirements,” says lead author Hoda Talebian, a PhD candidate in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at UBC. “We believe we have created the most comprehensive model for hydrogen adoption in a region like BC, where demand is still low for these types of vehicles.”

The researchers, all affiliated with UBC’s Clean Energy Research Centre (CERC), analyzed future demand for light‑duty hydrogen vehicles and included the potential effects of policy tools like BC’s carbon tax and the low carbon fuel standard.

“Provided BC maintains those policies, and assuming enough hydrogen vehicles are available, our model sees hydrogen demand growing significantly every year,” says co‑author and CERC program manager Omar Herrera.

The researchers note that hydrogen cars like the Toyota Mirai and Hyundai’s Nexo are already available in BC, and a public retail hydrogen station opened in Vancouver last year – Canada’s first. By 2020, Greater Vancouver and Victoria are projected to have a network of six stations.

“The momentum for hydrogen vehicles is growing, and BC is leading developments in Canada by providing supports like car sales rebates and incentives for building fueling stations,” says engineering professor and senior study author Walter Mérida.

“However, we need a solid refueling network to truly promote mass adoption. We hope that our framework contributes to its development and to the CleanBC plan, which includes a zero‑emission vehicle mandate
by 2040.”

Is There a Genetic Component to Problem Gambling?

Biological siblings of people with gambling disorder also display markers of increased impulsivity and risk‑taking, according to a UBC psychology study. The findings suggest people with gambling disorder – a psychiatric term for serious gambling problems – may have pre‑existing genetic vulnerabilities to the illness.

This study is the first to investigate vulnerabilities to gambling disorder by looking at siblings. The disorder, which is associated with severe negative consequences including depression, bankruptcy and family breakup, affects up to three per cent of the Canadian population.

“Impulsivity, risky decision‑making and altered brain reward processing are observed in people with gambling disorder,” says lead author Eve Limbrick‑Oldfield, a postdoctoral research fellow. “We wanted to find out whether these markers represent pre‑existing vulnerabilities or are a consequence of how gambling changes the brain. To test this, we studied gamblers’ siblings since they share similar genetic material and environment.”

The researchers worked with 20 people with gambling disorder, 16 siblings and a control group of healthy volunteers. The participants were asked to complete questionnaires and cognitive computer tests that measured their impulsivity and risk‑taking behaviour. They also underwent brain scanning in an MRI while playing a slot machine task, to measure brain responses to rewards and wins.

The researchers found that both the problem gamblers and the siblings reported increased risk‑taking and impulsivity compared to the control group. For example, problem gamblers and their siblings were more likely to act impulsively when experiencing negative emotions, and placed larger bets when making a risky choice.

Interestingly, the siblings showed no alterations in the brain response to rewards compared to the control group, leaving the possibility that the brain activity found in problem gamblers may have developed as a result of gambling experience.

The researchers note that siblings of problem gamblers were particularly difficult to recruit for the study because family relationships are often strained as a consequence of gambling problems.

“Since our study had a relatively small sample size, we hope it will encourage other researchers to replicate it so we could learn more about how genetics play a role in the gambling disorder,” says study co‑author Dr. Henrietta Bowden‑Jones, director of the United Kingdom’s National Problem Gambling Clinic, from where the group with gambling disorder were recruited.

Bowden‑Jones said the findings also highlight the potential for public awareness and gambling prevention.

Next-Generation Battery

Researchers at UBC Okanagan are collaborating with Fenix Advanced Materials of Trail, BC, to design and develop a battery that is smaller and more powerful than what’s currently available.

UBCO engineering students Peter Zhao (left) and Huibing He examine the component of a tiny lithium-tellurium battery along with assistant professor Jian Liu (right).
Using raw materials from BC‑based companies, the goal is to create a tellurium‑based cathode – a tiny device that will be used to make all‑solid‑state, lithium‑tellurium batteries. Tellurium – a rare metal byproduct of copper and lead‑zinc smelting – has characteristics that will enable miniature, all‑solid‑state lithium‑tellurium battery devices with both high energy density and a high safety rating.

Rapidly expanding use of portable electronics and the evolution of electric vehicles is driving global demand for smaller but more powerful battery technology, explains Jian Liu, an assistant professor in the School of Engineering at UBC Okanagan.

“Improvements are necessary thanks to many other emerging devices such as medical implants, wireless sensors and radio‑frequency identification,” says Liu. “Due to the limited space and high‑reliability requirements in these new devices, researchers are exploring technologies that possess high‑energy density and more stable configurations.”

One tellurium atom can store two lithium ions and two electrons – making it a potent material for storing and releasing electricity.

“Due to its high density, tellurium provides a much higher volumetric capacity than other cathode materials, such as sulfur and selenium,” explains Liu. “With the advantages of high volumetric energy density and excellent safety, all‑solid‑state lithium‑tellurium batteries have the potential to power high‑end electronic applications where a smaller size, but higher energy output is required.”

Strategic partners of this new research collaboration are all members of Metal Tech Alley – a consortium of sustainable companies that encourage and support economic development in Southern BC.

Don Freschi, CEO of Fenix Advanced Materials, says the collaboration with UBCO will result in next‑generation batteries that will have an added economic benefit.

“We want to utilize and add value to the raw materials readily available in our region especially from Fenix, Teck, Retriev, Eagle Graphite and Deer Horn,” says Freschi. “This can stimulate our rural economy and advance our technological capability through circular economy.”

Amateur Investors Better Off Choosing Stocks at Random

Whether they’re aiming to avoid high financial management fees, control their own investments, or enjoy the thrill of playing the market, more consumers are opening investment accounts and making their own stock picks.

But a new study from the UBC Sauder School of Business has found that less experienced investors are failing to diversify – and could be putting themselves at serious financial risk. The effect is so pronounced that many amateur investors would be better off choosing stocks at complete random.

For the study, researchers first asked participants to create portfolios of financial assets using tables of previous returns, and then assessed the participants’ level of financial literacy. The researchers found the investors with poor financial literacy tended to choose positively correlated assets – for example, stocks in oil companies and forestry – which tend to fluctuate in value together.

“An amateur investor might buy stocks in lumber, mining, oil and banks, and believe they are diversifying because they’re investing in different companies and sectors,” says David Hardisty, study co‑author and assistant professor at UBC Sauder. “But because all of those equities tend to move in unison, it can be quite risky, because all the assets can potentially plunge at the same time.”

More experienced investors know to hedge their bets by including negatively correlated assets, which are likely to move down when others go up – or uncorrelated assets (ones that move up and down independently of the others) in order to mitigate losses.

The researchers also found that the amateur investors were actively preferring correlated assets because they seemed less complicated and more predictable.

“If it seems predictable, it seems safer and easier to track,” explains Hardisty. “Whereas if you have a combination of assets that all go in different directions, it seems chaotic, unpredictable and riskier.”

Ironically, when the study participants were encouraged to take more risk when creating a portfolio, the amateur investors ended up making safer, more diversified selections, compared to when they were encouraged to avoid risk.

“This shows that amateur investors rely on a definition of risk that greatly differs from the objective definition of portfolio risk,” says assistant professor and study co‑author Yann Cornil.

The researchers found that when amateur investors are shown the aggregate returns of portfolios (and not merely the returns of each asset composing the portfolio), they can see that having negatively correlated or uncorrelated assets is the winning investment strategy – even if it might seem counterintuitive to play both sides.

Hardisty hopes the research will encourage investors to educate themselves on investment strategies, and use the diversification tools that online investment services provide to properly balance their portfolios.

“In the best‑case scenario you could make lots of money and have an extra vacation or buy a car or something like that,” he explains of the positively correlated accounts. “But if your whole portfolio crashes you could risk losing your life savings. So, the best‑case scenario isn’t that much better, but the worst‑case scenario is a whole lot worse.”

Hiring Committees and Gender Bias

Is gender bias in hiring really a thing?

Opinions vary, but a study by a UBC psychologist and researchers in France reveals that hiring committees who denied it’s a problem were less likely to promote women.

“Our evidence suggests that when people recognize women might face barriers, they are more able to put aside their own biases,” says Toni Schmader, a UBC psychology professor and Canada Research Chair in social psychology. “We don’t see any favourability for or against male or female candidates among those committees who believe they need to be vigilant to the possibility that biases could be creeping in to their decision‑making.”

The study was unique in that findings were based on actual decisions made by 40 hiring committees in France, charged with filling elite research positions with the National Committee for Scientific Research (CNRS) for two consecutive years. Past research in this area has relied mostly on hypothetical scenarios, such as presenting a large sample of participants with identical resumés bearing either male or female names and asking who they would hire. By contrast, the decisions made during this study had real impact on scientists’ careers.

With cooperation from the CNRS, the researchers were able to first measure how strongly hiring committee members associated men with science. They did this using an “implicit association test” that flashes words on a computer screen and measures how quickly participants are able to assign those words to a particular category. People who make a strong association between men and science have to think a bit longer, and react more slowly, when challenged to pair female‑related words with science concepts.

Both men and women on the hiring committees tended to show the science = male association, which is difficult to hide in such a test.

“There’s research suggesting that you can document a ‘think science, think male’ implicit association showing up with kids as early as elementary school,” Schmader says. “We learn associations from what we see in our environment. If we don’t see a lot of women who are role models in science, then we learn to associate science more with men than women.”

These implicit associations are distinct from people’s explicit beliefs about women in science. In a separate survey that asked panelists directly whether women in science careers are impacted by such things as discrimination and family constraints, some hiring committees minimized those issues. Others acknowledged them.

When the researchers compared these implicit and explicit beliefs with the actual hiring outcomes, they learned that committees attuned to the barriers women face were more likely to overcome their implicit science/male associations when selecting candidates for the job. Among committees that believed “science isn’t sexist,” those which implicitly associated science more with men promoted fewer women. The difference was especially pronounced in year two of the study, when committee members would have been less conscious of the fact that their selections were being studied.

The findings show that awareness and acknowledgement of the barriers women face might be key to making sure implicit biases don’t affect hiring decisions. They also point to the importance of educating hiring committees about gender bias and how to guard against it, Schmader says.

How Nature Reshapes Wings

Birds come in an astounding array of shapes and colours. But it’s their physical prowess – like a bald eagle’s incredible ability to soar – that captivates human imagination.

Wings from several birds. Specimens from UBC’s Beaty Biodiversity Museum.
Wings from several birds. Specimens from UBC’s Beaty Biodiversity Museum. (Photo: Vikram Baliga.)
An enduring mystery is why bird species with similar flight styles or body sizes don’t have consistent wing shapes. All hummingbirds, and some species of falcons, hawks, kingfishers and passerines can hover, but the birds have strikingly different morphologies and are only distantly related. Ravens soar like eagles while their look‑alike cousins, crows, stick more closely to the ground.

UBC research helps explain why. Bird species tend to reshape the range of motion of their wings – rather than wing shape or size itself – as they evolve new ways of flying.

“Birds essentially swim through the air. They flex, extend and bend their wings in flight,” explains lead author Vikram Baliga. “As a bird specializes in a flight style, nature doesn’t appear to reshape the size or shape of the wing as much as it remodels the wing’s range of motion. Much like a swimmer adjusting their stroke.”

Hovering birds, according to the research, are relatively restricted in their ability to extend their elbows, but have a generous capability to move their wrist.

“Hummingbirds basically tuck their elbows in and predominately rely on rapidly swinging their wings at the wrist joint,” says Baliga. “For birds that glide, it’s more about maintaining the position of the limbs to keep steady sail. The most restricted species in our study are the bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocepalus) and the sooty shearwater (Ardenna grisea), both of which frequently soar and glide.”

Baliga and UBC zoologists Douglas Altshuler and Ildiko Szabo categorized 61 species of birds by flight style – from hovering to gliding to soaring. Using samples collected by the UBC Beaty Biodiversity Museum, the researchers manually measured the shape, flexibility and extendibility of each species’ wing. They also built an evolutionary family tree of the birds to then determine how range of motion evolved in the wrists and elbows of birds’ wings.

This work provides insights for drone and aircraft design. Engineers are looking to nature, using bioinspiration to improve flying performance.

“By looking across avian flight diversity, our research has determined one component of how birds use their wings,” says Baliga. “We’re working towards understanding how wings in nature morph during flight so that the knowledge can be applied to unmanned aerial vehicles – particularly in turbulence, wind gusts, or when attacked by aerial predators.

“Evolution has tested a range of wing designs and motions for specific circumstances. Looking at the restrictions that nature places on birds of different sizes and flight styles can help us understand what does and does not work when designing new technology.”

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