US Department of Energy

Grand Challenges: Request for Information on the Subsurface


Source: US Department of Energy

Subsurface reservoirs account for more than 80% of U.S. primary energy, and they offer vast potential for the storage of energy, CO2, and nuclear waste. Despite decades of development, current technologies do not allow full utilization of subsurface energy resources. Major advances in our understanding of the subsurface environment coupled with the identification and development of potential ‘game-changing’ technologies are needed to revolutionize utilization of the subsurface for energy production and storage while also protecting the environment.

The Department of Energy (DOE) has established the Subsurface Technology and Engineering Research, Development, and Demonstration (SubTER) Tech Team in order to address crosscutting grand challenges associated with the use of the subsurface for energy extraction and storage purposes. This Tech Team includes representatives of DOE applied technology offices that are active in the subsurface—EERE, EM, FE, NE, and OE— as well as representatives of the Office of Science, Office of Energy Policy and Systems Analysis, EIA, CI, OE, and ARPA-E. Through this coordinated approach, DOE can more quickly identify scientific and technology challenges and more efficiently leverage funding through multi-office collaborations. Functions of the DOE SubTER Tech Team include:

  • Identify subsurface challenges and advocate solutions;
  • Identify potential cross-cutting subsurface initiatives;
  • Facilitate both intra-departmental and interagency collaboration of cross-cutting subsurface R&D activities; and
  • Engage industry stakeholders operating in the subsurface.

Major sources of uncertainty in the subsurface environment include variable lithology, structure, and in situ stresses and the resulting variations in fracture initiation and growth processes, geochemical reactions and multi-phase flow at a variety of scales. These processes occur in the deep subsurface accessible only by wells. To realize the full potential of subsurface resources, improvements are needed in characterization, monitoring, prediction and ultimately control of fracture and flow processes over scales ranging from nanometers to kilometers.

Information Request

This Request for Information (RFI) is intended to be part of an ongoing dialog with stakeholders so that the activities and priorities advocated by the SubTER Tech Team incorporate the needs and current research challenges of the broad stakeholder community. Learn more by clicking on this link.

This RFI seeks information from industry, academia, national laboratories, and other federal agency stakeholders on critical subsurface knowledge and/or technology gaps that, if filled, will enable significant improvements in our understanding of the character and behavior of the subsurface environment and improve our ability to access, predict, manipulate and monitor the subsurface. The goal of the DOE SubTER Tech Team and any potential funding opportunities that are implemented as a result of this RFI is to enhance efficient and safe use of the subsurface for a growing range of uses, including energy production, CO2 storage and waste-water disposal while promoting safe environmental management practices.

The DOE is seeking specific information in four technical areas that have been identified as priorities based on the DOE’s strategies and technology roadmaps as well as on results from an internal workshop held to gather input from the National Labs: (1) intelligent wellbores; (2) induced seismicity; (3) control of fractures and subsurface fluid flow; and (4) new subsurface signals.

DOE may use the information obtained through responses to this RFI to develop one or more Areas of Interest for Research, Development and Demonstration (RD&D) projects crosscutting a number of existing DOE program areas. These Areas of Interest may subsequently be incorporated into one or more Funding Opportunity Announcement(s) (FOA) that will seek applications for competitively awarded financial assistance projects involving novel RD&D for innovative, transformative technologies. DOE recognizes that significant subsurface science and technology expertise exists within industry, academia, and other federal agencies today and also that non-DOE entities also invest in large RD&D efforts to continue technology advancements. The DOE is seeking feedback from stakeholders at this time to ensure broad-based inputs are incorporated into the development of these potential initiatives.

Intelligent Wellbores

Well integrity is critical across all industries and stakeholders accessing the subsurface for the purpose of resource extraction, energy storage, disposition of energy waste streams, and the remediation of sites contaminated from past endeavors. The DOE is interested in enhancing the ability of stakeholders to construct, maintain, remediate, and abandon wellbores across a wide range of geologic environments to meet application specific performance requirements.

  • Diagnostic and monitoring technologies that deliver to decision makers better transient (logging) or real-time data on wellbore/system health and performance.
  • Remediation technology and techniques that are non-intrusive and non-destructive, that can selectively target/perforate problem sections and deliver fit-for-purpose remediation materials.

Induced seismicity

Naturally-occurring seismicity is a phenomenon common on plate margins and in regions of intra-plate strain accumulation, and provides critical information about the structure, composition and behavior of the subsurface. Similarly, seismicity resulting from subsurface engineering for energy applications provides critical information for characterizing the in situ stress state and its response to applied stresses. Recent increases in the number and frequency of earthquakes in areas that have not been historically seismically active have been correlated to local fluid injection, elevating induced seismicity as a topic of public interest.

DOE is interested in exploring the nature of and controls on induced seismicity; the information induced seismicity can provide on changing in situ stress conditions and critical stress states in the subsurface; the potential for developing accurate, real-time stress state monitoring; and the possibilities for predicting, avoiding and/or mitigating felt seismicity.

This RFI seeks input from stakeholders active in the subsurface environment to identify the major challenges in understanding, predicting and mitigating risk from induced seismicity.

DOE is interested in focusing on several fundamental science and applied technology areas that promote novel concepts, technologies, and/or materials for controlling fracture formation and fluid flow. Some energy applications require enhancement of flow paths, while others require reducing or eliminating fluid flow. Major advances in understanding of fracture mechanics and the coupled physical and chemical processes that influence fracture generation and propagation are necessary in order to make such real-time control possible. Novel stimulation methods may provide alternative methods to hydraulic fracturing to enhance flow paths. These methods, which could include energetic and/or chemical approaches, have the potential to be both more effective and more environmentally sustainable than hydraulic fracturing. For reducing or eliminating flow, new materials that change properties (solidify or dramatically change viscosity) in response to their environment could be deployed to block flow paths. Materials that impede flow for different lengths of time and under different conditions could be valuable for a variety of applications. All of these new technologies would need to be developed through computational and laboratory studies and eventually tested at field scale.

New subsurface signals

DOE is interested in the potential to dynamically control and manage subsurface fractures, associated flow, and reactions. A major obstacle to adaptive control of subsurface fractures, reactions and flow is the limited ability to clearly characterize and monitor critical subsurface features. Although the energy industry has developed sophisticated tools to characterize the subsurface using both surface and wellbore methods, an entirely new class of capabilities are needed to characterize fractures and associated processes at sufficiently high spatial resolution and over large enough volumes to guide subsurface operations. The challenge is complicated by the range of relevant scales and by the coupled nature of thermal-hydrological-mechanical-chemical processes.

DOE is interested in transforming the ability to characterize subsurface systems by focusing on four areas of research: new signals, integration of multiple datasets, identification of critical system transitions, and automation. Potential approaches include both the use of multiple dataset to co-characterize physical, geochemical, and mechanical properties and the leveraging of advances in material science, nano-manufacturing, and high-performance computing. Success in addressing this challenge is needed to master the subsurface, enabling highly efficient and environmentally sound use of subsurface systems.

DOE anticipates that research projects solicited under any resulting FOA may include development of technologies and concepts at the lab scale as well as the need to test new technologies and concepts at field scale.

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