An Introduction to Dr Ellen Gilliland; Assistant Professor of Mining and Minerals Engineering

I am an Assistant Professor of Mining and Minerals Engineering at Virginia Tech, and I have a joint appointment at the GeoEnergy Research Centre (GERC) in Nottingham.  I haven’t always been a mining engineer and took a roundabout path to land here….

Back in high school, my physics teacher required all students to sign up for one of several lunchtime lecture series.  I was annoyed to give up my open-campus lunch break (great, another hour of education!), but I signed up for a series on geophysics because it was the only topic I hadn’t heard of and it turned out to be a serendipitous experience.  The series was taught by a professor from the local university who was passionate about teaching and involving students (even high schoolers) in field work.  We took several field trips around the state (Oklahoma), using geophysical tools to explore and image the subsurface of the earth.  We went to Tulsa to investigate an eyewitness account of a mass grave constructed during the Greenwood race riot of 1921, to a remote cave system in Johnston County to search for outlaws’ lost treasure, and to the University of Oklahoma campus to map utility tunnels.  I was fascinated by the ability of geophysical technologies to characterize the subsurface “without digging” and by the potential to apply these technologies toward solving a variety of real-world problems.

I enrolled at the University of Oklahoma and majored in Geophysics, earning my B.S. in 2006.  I loved the undergraduate program at OU, which was both challenging and fun.  Along the way, I had several more opportunities for field work and travel, including a three-week archeological study in Greece and a semester abroad in Glasgow, Scotland.  I decided I needed a change of scenery for graduate school and settled on Virginia Tech for my M.S. program.  Although Oklahoma has long been a hub for the oil and gas industries, it was during my early years at Virginia Tech that I was introduced to the role of geophysics in exploring and developing energy resources.  My graduate research involved characterizing the sources of error on micro-earthquake locations recorded during a hydraulic fracturing treatment.  By monitoring and analyzing the effectiveness of well treatments, operators can optimize the parameters of those treatments and reduce the number of wells they need to drill in order to produce the resource.

Following my M.S. degree, I accepted a position with a natural gas operator, mapping reservoirs in 3D (and 4D!) and planning new directional wells in the Marcellus shale play.  I enjoyed many aspects of the work— using cutting-edge software to analyze beautiful high-resolution data sets, sweating my way through million-dollar decisions, and flying on the NetJet—but, ultimately, I missed doing research. 

I left my position in industry in 2011 to head back to Virginia Tech and join the staff of the Virginia Center for Coal and Energy Research (VCCER).  As a research associate, I worked on projects related to carbon sequestration and management, including a field project to use captured carbon emissions to enhance gas recovery from stacked coalbed methane seams, and a characterization project to assess the geology of the offshore Atlantic margin for carbon storage and/or utilization operations, both sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy.  I also worked on an Alpha Foundation project to test an ultra-low frequency, through-the-earth communication system for underground mining emergencies.  These projects were managed by faculty of the Mining and Minerals Engineering Department, and I learned a lot about the department as a result.  I was impressed with the diverse research conducted by mining engineers and the departmental focus on developing sustainable practices, “green” technologies, and improved standards for human and environmental safety within the energy and minerals industries.  I joined the department as a PhD student, conducting research to design and implement a monitoring program for a carbon storage/ enhanced coalbed methane recovery field test in southwestern Virginia.  One key outcome of that work was successful microseismic imaging of formation water evacuating a CO2 injection wellbore in the early days of the test.  This was significant because the recorded data included no micro-earthquakes which are typically used to map “hotspots” of reservoir activity, only low-level acoustic emissions from fluids mobilized in the reservoir.

Showing UK colleagues around the coal bed methane site in Virginia
I completed my Ph.D. in the fall of 2016 and started my current position later that year.  I have enjoyed my new role teaching undergraduate and graduate students, and I am excited to be involved in two new carbon management projects.  Additionally, this summer I fulfilled a dream to travel to China, where I presented a paper at the 8th International Conference on Sustainable Development in the Minerals Industry (SDIMI 2017) in Beijing.  In my new position, I hope to continue using geophysical and remote sensing methods to monitor activities in the energy and minerals industries, characterize their impacts, and improve the sustainable development of energy and mineral resources.  I also hope to explore additional research and professional interests, including global and domestic energy policy, corporate-public engagement, and diversity in STEM fields and academia. 

Energy researchers often refer to the “grand challenge” to achieve the secure supply, affordability, and sustainability of energy resources.  It is a global challenge, and the partnership between VCCER and GERC provides a unique opportunity for collaborative, international research efforts to address it.  I have enjoyed meeting several GERC staff on their visits to Virginia Tech and on a visit I made to the University of Nottingham as a student in 2015.  I am excited to have joined the GERC team and look forward to working with the talented GERC staff in the coming years.

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