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Bettering Bakken

WSU researchers have a new plan to utilize North Dakota oil fields' excess methane; plus, Spokane doubles down on filling potholes

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WSU researchers believe they can reduce pollution in the Bakken oil fields.
  • WSU researchers believe they can reduce pollution in the Bakken oil fields.

METHANE FLARES BEWARE

Washington State University researchers have figured out a way to more efficiently and inexpensively address methane that's largely burned off as a byproduct in the North Dakota Bakken oil fields.

Rather than flare off the methane, which produces as much greenhouse gas in a year in that region as 1 million cars, according to a WSU news release on the RESEARCH, the gas can be converted to other products using help from an electric field.

Right now, the industry may use a nickel catalyst to break down some methane, because it's inexpensive, says Jean-Sabin McEwen, an assistant professor of chemical engineering at WSU.

"But when you use a nickel catalyst, there's several things that go wrong," McEwen says. "You need higher temperatures to break the methane apart, because methane is very tightly bound, and you need a lot of steam in order for the catalyst to stay active. Those two major things result in nickel catalysts being a very energy-intensive process."

But if you add an electric field to that process, it helps reorient the molecules so they're easier to break down, and requires significantly less heat and steam, according to the research by McEwen and Su Ha, a WSU associate professor of chemical engineering.

"It's like a combination lock," Ha says in the WSU announcement on the research. "When you apply the right combination, when you apply the electric field with the right strength and right direction, it's like you are applying a combination to a lock and click, it opens."

In addition to producing a usable byproduct in the form of syngas (synthetic gas) components, the process could save money, reduce emissions, and potentially be used to provide electricity in remote areas.

By one estimate, the researchers calculated that industry-wide in the United States, the reaction could save from $600,000 to $2.3 million every day, due to the reduction in the amount of water/steam needed in the reaction, McEwen says. (SAMANTHA WOHLFEIL)

WHEN THE JAIL BREAKS THE LAW

A man posted bail on an assault charge in Yakima County in May, but was not released due to a federal IMMIGRATION hold. An agreement between Yakima County and immigration enforcement allows the county to hold individuals on civil immigration warrants, despite a state court order to release them.

Last week, U.S. District Court Judge Salvador Mendoza ordered the man released, and found that the immigration hold violates his Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable searches and seizures.

The ruling has potentially broad implications, as similar agreements between local jurisdictions and federal authorities are in place across the country. One of those places is Spokane County.

A section of the agreement between Spokane County and U.S. Border Patrol that directs the local jail how and when to release federal detainees is nearly identical to the agreement in Yakima, says Matt Adams, legal director of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, who worked on the Yakima case.

The agreement in Spokane came into play when five people from India were arrested in February, soon after crossing the Canadian border into the U.S.

The five people pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of entering the country illegally, and the judge ordered them to be released. But Spokane County Jail officials refused to comply, and the five people were picked up by federal agents and transferred to the Federal Detention Center, SeaTac, says local attorney Nick Vieth, who represents one of the five.

The agreement, Vieth says, "indemnifies the jail from unlawfully holding people after their release so immigration and customs can pick them up."

"This is a crucial ruling, not only for our client and his family, but for all immigrants who have been wrongly held in county jails based on federal administrative 'warrants' and unlawful immigration holds," Adams says. (MITCH RYALS)

FASTER FILL-UPS

As the Aug. 1 primary approached, nearly every challenger for a Spokane City Council seat named fixing POTHOLES as their No. 1 priority. But last month, the city council took a step that could have a huge impact on the speed with which the city can fill potholes this winter: Approving $84,000 to buy two new trailers that can haul heated asphalt mix to pothole sites.

"Technically, we can double the amount of potholes we fill in the day," says city spokeswoman Marlene Feist.

Hot asphalt mix is typically a lot more effective at filling potholes during the winter than cold mix — the hot stuff adheres to the surrounding pavement better and lasts longer. But until now, the city has only had two heated-asphalt trucks to work with.

This year alone, the city has filled 3,900 potholes — though that's slowed down considerably in the past six to eight weeks. If this winter is as bad as last winter, however, expect more potholes to be repaired more quickly, and with longer-lasting stuff. (DANIEL WALTERS)

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