Both supporters and detractors of the energy industry recognize the sector’s role in providing fuel, electricity and chemicals to local populations.
Less commonly discussed is how energy projects can help to provide clean water, protect native wildlife and provide economic opportunities to underserved populations.
AAPG’s Sustainable Development in Energy Competition showcases positive contributions through a contest designed for students and young professionals.
The Sustainable Development in Energy Contest was designed to harness the creativity of young people in developing innovative and sustainable development projects across the energy spectrum. The goal is to generate and fund practical and achievable ideas with positive social, environmental and economic impacts.
The competition is a flagship initiative of AAPG’s Sustainable Development Committee, founded in 2018.
William Maloney, executive adviser at Balex Technologies and Sustainable Development Committee chair from 2018 to 2023, said the contest was a natural fit for the committee, which he described as “a diverse group of action-oriented people that work well together.”
The global competition was inspired by the Sustainable Development in Energy Projects Competition held in AAPG’s Latin America and Caribbean Region (LACR) in 2019 and 2020.
“After seeing the success of the contest in LACR we agreed it would be great if we can make it a global competition,” Maloney said. “We made a pitch to the AAPG Foundation, the AAPG Corporate Advisory Board and select company representatives. Fortunately for us, the AAPG Foundation, Aramco, BP and Chevron all agreed to be sponsors.”
SDC sponsorship funds provide $5000, $3000 and $2000 cash awards to the first, second and third place teams, respectively.
The 2023 competition received 42 proposals from 11 countries. The SDC judging team developed a scoring system to evaluate proposals and choose the top six finalists. Finalists presented to the judges via Zoom and the judges chose the top three winners.
Combatting Groundwater Contamination in Ghana
The first-place award went to Team SolarStreams, led by Ogonna Emenaha, a recent graduate of the Sustainable and Innovative Natural Resources Management joint master’s program at Ghent University, Belgium, and Uppsala University, Sweden.
Their project addresses groundwater contamination and affordable access to clean water – important issues for mining communities in developing nations.
Emenaha learned about the contest in early 2022 through his AAPG Student Chapter at Nnamdi Azikiwe University in Nigeria. During this time, he worked closely with fellow chapter member Mary Arukwe, whose project placed first in the 2022 SDC.
“I saw the contest as the perfect opportunity to test my ideas in groundwater remediation using clean energy sources, mainly to see how it can make mining more environmentally friendly and, particularly, to eliminate social aversion to mining operations,” he said.
Emenaha said his solution takes cues from the simple process of boiling water and applies it on a larger scale.
“The idea is to use solar energy to heat up contaminated groundwater systems, turning them into vapor. Next, vapor is captured and condensed back into water using specialized condenser units, producing clean water in the process,” he said. “The project’s primary goal is to design, construct and optimize a Solar-Driven Interfacial Evaporation system capable of performing all these functions at low cost.”
Emenaha plans to implement the project in the Nsuta-Tarkwa community of Southwest Ghana, home to the African continent’s second largest manganese mine.
The SDC contest prize money will cover the cost of constructing the SDIE system, set to be completed mid-November, and will provide training to students who will operate it. The team also plans a community outreach campaign to increase public awareness of clean water practices and to gain support for the project.
Support from Stakeholders
Emenaha said he is pleased with the community’s reception of the project thus far.
“We are highly optimistic about the project’s outcomes, and already the people of Nsuta-Tarkwa, as well as the university community, who will be our project partners, have shown great enthusiasm in supporting us,” he said.
Lessons learned during the initial phase will help the team fine-tune the process and prepare to expand the project in other areas.
“At the project conclusion, we hope to be able to clearly define the efficiency of our system and see how it can be optimized for better productivity without increasing cost,” he said. Developing a low-cost solution is key, given that existing groundwater remediation technologies are expensive and energy intensive.”
Success in Ghana is critical to ensuring Team SolarStreams’ larger objective.
“Depending on how the project performs after completion in Ghana, my team hopes to scale up this solution and potentially transition into a company that specializes in providing affordable groundwater remediation technologies. In five years, we hope to be a major reference point in providing lasting and scalable solutions that address water-related issues,” he said.
Harnessing Geothermal for Energy Security in India
The SDC’s second-place winner focused on groundwater issues in another developing country, India.
Harshwardhanam Nishanta, Mihir Kumar, Deepak Sharma, Pratham Kumar Sinha and Mohit Singh, Petroleum Engineering students at the Rajiv Gandhi Institute of Petroleum Technology in Uttar Pradesh developed the project, entitled “Basalt Aquifer Recharge Model for Geothermal Prospects.”
Nishanta, the team lead, described how the project focused on addressing groundwater level recharge and harnessing the geothermal energy to enhance energy security.
“We proposed an approach to achieve this through a strategic arrangement of dug wells along the riverbanks, positioned to slope downward towards the targeted land,” he said.
“The primary objective was to optimize the efficiency of the areal sweep, ensuring an effective groundwater recharge process. Given the region’s susceptibility to both sudden floods and prolonged droughts, we leveraged preexisting dams and canals. By redirecting floodwaters into newly constructed basalt-dug wells, our aim was not only to elevate groundwater levels for future geothermal perspectives but also to create a valuable reservoir for utilization during dry spells.”
Nishanta said he learned about the competition through a post on AAPG’s LinkedIn page, and he jumped at the opportunity to participate.
“My classmates and I were analyzing the impact of various core samples on their efficacy in optimizing geothermal cycles. During this endeavor, the opportunity to participate in this competition came to our attention, and it instantly sparked an idea,” he said. “We thought, ‘Why not propose a comprehensive plan for harnessing geothermal energy to drive sustainable development?’ This realization aligned perfectly with our ongoing research and expertise, making our participation a natural and enthusiastic choice.”
Defining the Scope and Region
The team’s idea took shape during a search for promising geothermal prospects in India.
“The quest led us to the Marathwada region, celebrated for its basalt rock formations with remarkable water retention capabilities,” he said.
While studying the area’s geothermal potential, the team noticed glaring problems, including severe water scarcity, resulting in a continuous decline in agricultural production.
“Further examination of the matter revealed a recurring pattern. The region witnessed periodic flash floods followed by extended droughts, intensifying the water scarcity crisis. This not only adversely affected agriculture but also compelled the use of high TDS (total dissolved solids) water, impacting public health and sanitation,” he said.
In addition to sanitation issues, Nishanta and team members found that Marathwada also suffered from a decline in cotton cultivation.
“The cotton industry played significant role in the livelihoods of rural communities, particularly women, and the waning cotton industry was posing economic hardships for the region,” he said.
Recognizing the indispensable role of groundwater for economic stability, and for geothermal energy projects, the team developed an ambitious initiative: the Basalt Aquifer Recharge Model, designed to reinvigorate the region’s aquifers.
SDC sponsorship will help Team Aqualogists conduct two projects: one to map groundwater potential zones and another to detect groundwater contamination.
“These efforts require specialized equipment such as GPR and ERT instruments, and the prize money will support the procurement and usage of these essential tools,” he said.
“Our objective is not only to replenish groundwater levels but also to boost agriculture, enhance health and sanitation conditions, and provide a lifeline to the struggling cotton industry,” he said. “Furthermore, the introduction of geothermal energy will significantly contribute to improving the energy security of this region, ensuring a more sustainable and prosperous future.”
Nishanta explained how the project is designed to not only ensure long-term water and energy security but also to help the region move beyond a state of underdevelopment.
“In the short term, our project is poised to trigger a significant economic revival in the Marathwada region. With the resumption of small-scale industries, especially cotton and sugarcane plantations, we anticipate a swift increase in GDP per capita. In the long term, our project serves as the cornerstone for fostering sustainable economic growth and enhancing the energy security of the region through geothermal energy,” he said.
Responsible Mining Practices
While the first and second-place SDC projects focused on water, the third-place winner focused on lithium … and flamingos.
Julio C. Villarroel Salvatierra, doctoral student in reservoir engineering at the University of Texas at Austin, described his project as a reservoir engineering problem that helps save the flamingos of the Andes.
“Yes, the good-looking pink birds that currently are in danger,” he said.
Villarroel’s project examines how this critical mineral powering the electric vehicles, touted as a solution to the energy transition, can have negative consequences on the environment.
“When I was looking for opportunities to reach new frontiers of reservoir engineering, I came across an awful statistic from the SeaWorld Foundation: that the Andean flamingos from the Altiplano/Puna of Bolivia-Argentina-Chile, are in a decreasing rate every year with ‘unknown’ causes. It looks like the flamingos are paying the bill for our rush on the net-zero goal” he said.
The population decline coincides with an increase in lithium brine extraction taking place in the endorheic arid-climate basins, locally known as “salars,” where the Andean flamingos breed and reproduce. Villarroel noted that vast amounts of lithium extraction (and possible injection) lead to a hydro-chemical imbalance that can affect native populations.
“It is highly probable that the lithium brine extraction is impacting the flamingos, and perhaps other species,” he said. “A responsible and efficient exploitation of the underground resources is needed. And that is why I decided to work on this project,” he said, adding that he has personal reasons as well.
“I am from Bolivia, so I have a special motivation to work on this,” he said.
Through his research, Villarroel aims to better understand fluid flow from these high-altitude salt-lake basins in order to preserve the ionic hydro-chemical balance of the basins and protect native species, while enhancing the production and exploration of this mineral.
“We need to balance the energy transition demand for lithium while preserving the environment,” he said.
The SDC funding will help Villarroel conduct his experimental work. He will use the prize money to purchase equipment for high precision measurements and data for formation evaluation, as well as to fund travel from the Andes and to the United States.
A Valuable Experience
Villarroel said participating in the SDC allowed him to harness his creativity and improve his ability to tell a story.
“The competition encourages young students with new ideas to participate in a creative environment,” he said. “My presentation had a sprinkle of innovation, and I thought it was the right opportunity to test and show it.”
His research is largely based upon his doctoral work at UT-Austin, under the supervision of professors Larry W. Lake and Carlos Torres-Verdín, both considered leading experts in the fields of reservoir engineering and formation evaluation.
Villarroel, who plays for the UT-Austin Longhorns rugby team, draws parallels between sustainable development projects and his chosen sport.
“By playing rugby, I learned that the key for results is the combination of commitment, hard work and clear goals, supported by a team of people who share the same goal,” he said.
“Sustainable development requires this type of people: hard-working geoscientists that are willing to ‘tackle’ any problem – no matter how big or difficult it seems – with laser focus and strategy. At the end of the day, energy transition is and will continue to be, a collective endeavor for the benefit of everyone involved. The flamingos need to be safe,” he said.
Villarroel also co-founded Xorn Mineral Insights, a start-up that aims to assess South American companies to accelerate in the energy transition by using advanced computing techniques with a focus on geothermal resources, lithium and methane emissions.
More than a Competition
Nishanta described how participating in the Sustainable Development in Energy Contest provided a remarkable learning opportunity for him and his fellow team members.
“The contest has enhanced our comprehension of the intricate planning necessary for harnessing renewable energies, enabling us to apply our engineering problem-solving and analytical skills effectively, even in challenging circumstances. Additionally, it has highlighted the strong correlation between energy and social development, emphasizing the critical importance of sustainable energy in improving various aspects of people’s lives and positively impacting millions,” he said.
Emenaha said the SDC is about much more than projects and prize money – the contest serves as a transformational experience for participants, regardless of whether they place among top finishers.
“First, I consider the Sustainable Development Contest as not just a competition but a platform for impact and self-development, and I think students will benefit more from this when they begin to see the contest in that light,” he said.
“SDC challenges your creativity and helps you appreciate the skills you have acquired both as a student and as a young professional. The reality is that without this contest, the summer course work I undertook, which gave birth to my project, might have remained just a line on my academic transcript. This contest literally inspired me to translate a simple class work into a viable solution for a real-world challenge. So, I strongly encourage students and young professionals to start thinking out solutions and preparing for the next application cycle.”
Opportunities for Private Companies
Emenaha said supporting the competition provides companies the opportunity to benefit, tapping into actionable solutions put forth during the competition.
“It’s important to recognize that every company faces its own set of challenges, and sometimes the solutions they seek may not reside in their R&D departments but locked up in the minds of students who only need a platform to showcase them, and this is precisely what SDC is about,” he said.
Maloney explained that supporting the Sustainable Development in Energy Projects through sponsorship is an investment in tangible developments with concrete results.
“The prize money goes to doing the proposed project, not the individuals. Therefore, we are providing the seed money to get something done,” he said. “The students and young professionals are also helping the communities where they are working. So, we are providing them a platform to develop projects, write proposals, pitch those proposals to industry professionals, and – for the winners – have the opportunity to actually do the project.”
To learn more about the Sustainable Development in Energy Contest, including sponsorship opportunities, visit sdc.aapg.org.