Delaware Energy Institute gives UD students firsthand look at gas industry
From software-run trading floors to towering compressor stations, the natural gas industry in Delaware is as much about cutting edge as it is heavy lifting, a dynamic combination of chemistry, engineering, innovation and business.
Six University of Delaware students in the Delaware Energy Institute’s Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program learned those lessons firsthand when they visited three companies driving the natural gas industry in the state and beyond: Peninsula Energy Services Company, Inc. (PESCO), Eastern Shore Natural Gas (ESNG) and Formosa Plastics.
The growth of these companies has tracked with the national expansion of the natural gas market, which now provides more than 177 million Americans with heat, hot water, and gas-powered ovens.
The future, however, will require the leadership of today’s students, said Al Gallo, assistant vice president for PESCO and a Lerner College alumnus.
“The energy industry is so dynamic that students’ current and future academic studies could apply to many different job functions within the energy space,” Gallo said. “In order for energy companies to function at a high level, there is a need for expertise in a number of academic disciplines, including accounting, finance, meteorology, engineering, communications and more.”
The day began at the PESCO offices in Newark, Delaware, where students got their first glimpse at the economics of energy usage, chatting with employees responsible for managing natural gas supplies. PESCO, a subsidiary of Chesapeake Utilities Corporation, provides natural gas supply, asset management and risk management services to retail and wholesale customers in the Mid-Atlantic, Southeast and Appalachian Basin regions.
The company’s trading floor isn’t nearly as tense or chaotic as Wall Street, but the stakes are just as important: PESCO counts a broad array of companies, agencies, and universities as its customers, including Kraft, Under Armour, NASA, Perdue, DuPont, Chemours, and even the University.
For David Moglia, an engineering senior studying surfactant production for the UD-led Catalysis Center for Energy Innovation (CCEI), seeing energy trading, transmission and delivery up-close was eye-opening.
“Entering the energy industry is a very real possibility for many chemical engineering majors,” Moglia said. “The trip to PESCO exposed us to the business side of natural gas production I was not previously aware of, and left me with a much greater understanding of the natural gas industry as a whole.”
Energy trading is just the first step. The next is transporting the gas to where it needs to go. ESNG, Chesapeake Utilities Corporation’s natural gas transmission subsidiary, provided students with a peek behind the curtain on that crucial phase, allowing access to their Delaware City-based compressor station, which represents just one of many essential point locations in the company’s 457-mile interstate pipeline. ESNG’s pipeline transports natural gas from four pipeline interconnections in Pennsylvania to customers in Delaware, Maryland and Pennsylvania.
At the ESNG facility, the essential tools hide inside a set of nondescript warehouses. This armada of transmission equipment—from piping systems and radiators to tanks and cooling units, all painted fire-engine red—helps deliver hundreds of thousands of dekatherms (the standard energy unit for natural gas) to customers each year.
Moglia, who learned earlier in the day that natural gas reserves in the U.S. are estimated to be more than 2,500 trillion cubic feet, said that seeing the equipment up close helped quantify the volume.
“Such a large number is almost an abstract concept,” he said.
The last stop brought students to the final and perhaps most important partner in the energy sale and supply process: the customer. In this case, Formosa Plastics, a Taiwan-based supplier of plastic resins and petrochemicals. The company’s 80-acre production facility, also located in Delaware City, is powered by the gas supplied by PESCO and ESNG, helping to keep the boilers and other equipment used to produce PVC powder for use in flooring, pipes, automotive parts and more.
Christine Castagna, a Summer Scholar in UD’s Undergraduate Research Program, is a junior in chemical engineering, studying block copolymers for lithium ion battery applications under Thomas H. Epps, III, the Thomas and Kipp Gutshall Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering. Castagna said touring the Formosa facility helped her close the knowledge gap between research and production—knowledge that’s not always evident from inside the lab.
“Engineers design ways to make thousands of gallons of product at a time instead of a few milliliters,” Castagna said. “Visiting Formosa Plastics gave me insight into where breakthrough materials go after the lab, which is an important perspective for my undergraduate research now and for a future in research and development.”
As Castagna’s experience attests, students gaining new, unexpected perspectives is key to driving innovation in research fields. Gallo agreed. He’s taking a proactive approach to get students thinking about energy as it exists outside the lab—with an eye toward his alma mater.
“Several PESCO Team members ended up in the energy industry in many different ways, mostly by chance,” Gallo said. “I would like to change this, and have students seek out positions in the energy industry by helping them understand how dynamic, exciting and environmentally impactful it is. The United States is positioned to be a global leader in energy supply and technology. Why not have the University of Delaware lead this effort?”
The Delaware Energy Institute was established in 2007 to provide a focal point for energy-related activities at UD and to create the enabling science and advance the development and deployment of new and emerging energy technologies.
DEI’s mission is to marshal and expand the University’s science, engineering and public policy expertise in new and emerging energy technologies and, with its industry and government partners, use this research to address the entire spectrum of challenges posed by future energy needs. The institute’s expertise includes catalysis, photovoltaics, hydrogen generation and storage, fuel cells, biofuels, wind energy, nanomaterials, and high-efficiency solar.
To learn more about DEI, visit the official website.
PESCO was founded in 2002 and incorporated as a separate subsidiary of Chesapeake Utilities in 2004. Chesapeake Utilities and its family of businesses engage in natural gas distribution, transmission, gathering and processing, marketing, electric generation and distribution, wholesale and retail marketing, propane supply, and a number of other services.
For more information, visit www.chpk.com.
article by Kevin Liedel