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Fracking: energy miracle or environmental menace?
The controversial method of injecting liquid at high pressure into shale and other rock formations to release the oil or gas inside has boosted domestic oil production in the U.S. while also raising concerns of earthquakes and groundwater pollution.
But Mukul Sharma, who holds an endowed chair in petroleum engineering at the University of Texas at Austin, has another vision: geothermal fracking, a near-carbon-free energy source that carries fewer risks.
"Drilling horizontal wells and fracking them has been used in oil and gas, but it's never been done in the geothermal space," he told Austonia.
Mukul Sharma is known as the "Frack King" in some industry circles. (University of Texas at Austin)
Known as the "Frack King'' in industry circles, Sharma co-founded a new startup, Geothermix, last year. The Austin-based company aims to develop enhanced geothermal systems that are commercially competitive, scalable and environmentally friendly.
Historically, oil and gas wells were drilled down vertically, deep in the ground where temperatures could exceed 500°F. With the advent of widespread horizontal fracking in the late 1990s, the area available for heat exchange increased by up to a thousandfold, Sharma said.
Instead of using horizontal drilling for oil and gas production, Geothermix plans to apply the technique in a new way: to generate geothermal energy. Instead of injecting water into the rock to push out oil or gas, it will inject water into the horizontal wells, where it will heat up. The resulting hot water or steam will then be pushed out of the well via a closed-loop system and converted into electricity.
This stands in sharp contrast to traditional heating systems, which depend on the combustion of fossil fuels in a furnace or boiler. Although fracking relies on fossil fuels, the resulting geothermal systems won't. "It's a near carbon-free energy source," Sharma said.
Geothermal fracking is also less risky from an environmental perspective. When used for oil and gas production, fracking can trigger earthquakes. "In geothermal we are actually circulating fluids," he said, adding that this circuit method reduces the pressure change in the group by providing an outlet. "There's no such thing as zero-risk, but you can keep the risk really small."
This graphic shows how an enhanced geothermal system could work. (Department of Energy)
The long game
Geothermal fracking is not without its challenges, however.
Such systems will require horizontal fracking on-site because it's difficult to transport hot water and gas over long distances. This means they won't benefit from the economies of scale of a large power station.
There is also the question of money. Is geothermal fracking commercially viable? "That's the real unknown right now," Sharma said. He believes it will be competitive where the cost of power is very expensive, such as in rural areas far from the electrical grid. (Some Texans may also opt for a more expensive geothermal energy source if it gets them off the grid, given the catastrophic winter storm in February.)
Geothermix is working to demonstrate a successful enhanced geothermal system in the next six months. The timing could be just right. "Geothermal energy is poised for a big breakout," read a Vox headline from October. "(G)eothermal is no longer a niche play," Vik Rao, former chief technology officer of the oil field service company Halliburton, told the Heat Beat blog last year. "It's scalable, potentially in a highly material way."
The U.S. Department of Energy also weighed in, publishing a 218-page report on enhanced geothermal systems in 2019. Although the report acknowledged the technical and economic challenges, predicting that full commercialization is likely more than a decade away, it was clear about the upside: "Compared to a total U.S. annual energy consumption of 1,754 (terawatt-hours-thermal) for residential and commercial space heating, this EGS-based resource is theoretically sufficient to heat every U.S. home and commercial building for at least 8,500 years."
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Flashing back to early-pandemic times, hospitals are once again at critical capacity and pleading with residents to do what couldn't be done during the first wave: get vaccinated.
ICU capacity in the 11 county Trauma Service Region of 2.3 million people is fluctuating at 16 staffed beds.
In a statement on behalf of Ascension Seton, Baylor Scott & White Health and St. David's Healthcare, a spokesperson said that hospitals are asking residents to "help us and each other" by getting vaccinated and continuing to utilize safety practices to slow the spread of the virus.
According to the statement, a "longstanding" nurse staffing challenge combined with the recent COVID-19 spike is putting "extraordinary pressure" on hospital systems.
Along with the unmitigated spread of the virus in unvaccinated, the more contagious Delta variant is also to blame for the spike in cases. The seven-day moving average of COVID cases in the Austin area is 47, just three cases away from triggering Stage 5 guidelines. "We cannot emphasize strongly enough the increased transmissibility of the Delta variant," the statement said.
Currently, Austin area hospital systems have 325 people who are hospitalized with COVID-19, 109 in ICUs and 62 on ventilators.
Local hospitals have a "surge plan" that includes utilization of "all available patient care space and employees within our hospitals and in other settings" that will go into effect when capacity is hit, according to the statement.
The hospitals are working on sourcing supplemental staff and emphasized that emergency care will still be available but it may involve patient transfers "in order to provide the most appropriate care."
Healthcare systems have hit this threshold previously during the pandemic: the city held an alternate care site at the Austin Convention Center from January to March of this year.
"Our responsibility during this pandemic continues to be balancing our readiness to care for patients with COVID-19, while making sure patients who depend on our hospitals receive needed and timely care," the statement said. "We do not want to see necessary non-COVID care delayed as it was during the early stages of the pandemic."
Austin is under Stage 4 guidelines, which asks—but cannot enforce under Gov. Greg Abbott's executive order—that vaccinated individuals mask in all situations and unvaccinated individuals mask, while only leaving their homes if essential.
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The 2020(1?) Olympics have induced plenty of late nights and early mornings for millions of Americans as they watch the world's best leap, flip and dive through the 2020 Tokyo Games.
Over two dozen athletes with Austin ties and many more from Texas are making headlines for their contributions to the Games, including 17-year-old gold medal swimmer Lydia Jacoby and legendary softball pitcher Cat Osterman.
So far, Austin athletes have racked up a gold and two silvers for Team USA. Some have more history-making opportunities ahead of them in the Games; others are soon headed home early with no medal but an Olympic title nonetheless. Team USA is in third place overall and has accumulated 40 medals, the second-most behind China, at this year's Games.
We're one week into the Games. Here's a quick look at the biggest headlines in this year's controversial competition and how athletes with Austin ties stacked up.
The Olympics' strangest Games to date? A quick rundown
This year's Games have been an outlier for several reasons. Many athletes have been impacted by COVID, with some saying that the Olympics maybe shouldn't have happened at all.
Millions of fans are getting an insider's view of the Olympics thanks to TikTok. U.S. women's rugby sevens star Ilona Maher helped viewership of her sport spike after her witty videos, including a clip where the team attempts to break the Olympic Village's cardboard beds.
The once-delayed Games have also seen upsets like no other, with many U.S.-dominated sports being championed by the most unlikely of teams.
In gymnastics, Texas native and world-renowned gymnast Simone Biles stepped out of the team competition left the team final and the individual all-around due to what is known as the "twisties," a sort of mind-and-body disconnect that could result in life-threatening injuries. Biles isn't sure if she'll compete in individual events next week, but her team is still doing well without their leader: the U.S. won silver as a team and Suni Lee was the individual gold medal winner.
A condom was used to repair the canoe of world-renowned Australian canoeist Jessica Fox. Meanwhile, a crash put Rio gold medalist Connor Fields in the hospital after a dangerous crash involving six riders on the BMX track.
Things got awkward in a post-swimming press conference when Team USA silver medalist Ryan Murphy and British bronze medalist Luke Greenbank said that the Games are "probably not clean," alluding to Russia's state-sponsored doping campaign that forced them to switch names to the Russian Olympic Committee. ROC competitor Evgeny Rylov was the gold medalist in the event.
Austin athletes have taken a gold and two silvers so far in the Games, with two swimming medals and a silver softball title.
Upcoming UT freshman Lydia Jacoby earned her first gold medal as a 17-year-old in the women's 100m. The Alaska native is the first of her state to win a swimming gold medal, and she completed the feat despite not having an Olympic-size swimming pool to train with.
Longhorn Erica Sullivan made it to the podium as well with a silver medal in the women's 1500m freestyle, finishing just behind U.S. star Katie Ledecky.
Legendary UT alum Cat Osterman's decorated Olympic run is up. The 38-year-old lefthanded pitcher left her final Olympics with a bittersweet silver medal after home team Japan secured the gold in the women's softball final. The loss was the first time the two had seen each other since Japan first took the gold from Team USA in 2008, the last time softball had been in the Olympics. Osterman's next move is off the pitcher's mound; the current assistant coach at Texas State University hopes to work for a nonprofit in Austin after she officially retires on September 27.
Those who went home
While every Olympian wants to go home with that precious metal, even making it to the world's biggest competition is a feat on its own. Here are the Austin athletes who didn't quite make it to the podium:
- Longhorn swimmer Townley Haas was 5th in the semifinals of the men's 200m freestyle and did not advance.
- Despite being medal favorites, Longhorn Gia Doonan and her women's eights crew just missed the mark with a fourth place finish in Tokyo after many members recovered from COVID.
- Austinite Alison Gibson and partner Krysta Parmer finished eighth in the women's 3m synchronized diving competition.
- Haas and fellow UT alum Drew Kibler helped Team USA to a fourth-place finish in the men's 4x200m swimming freestyle.
- Caspar Corbeau, a Longhorn swimming for the Netherlands, finished 7th in his opening heat for the men's 100m and 200m swimming freestyle.
- Remedy Rule, a Longhorn swimming for the Philippines, finished eighth in the semifinal for the women's 200m butterfly.
- Anna Elendt, a UT swimmer competing for Team Germany, finished 7th in the semifinals of the women's 100m freestyle and was sixth in the prelims as part of the 4x100 medley relay.
What's to come
Sugar Land native and standout Simone Manuel helped Team USA to set a single-day record for medals won on Sunday with a bronze in the 4x100 freestyle relay. Fellow Team USA star Caeleb Dressel established his dominance with a first-place finish in the men's 100-meter freestyle on Thursday and set an Olympic record in the prelims of the 100m butterfly after helping the men's 4x100m freestyle earlier in the week.
Coming up, former Longhorn Joseph Schooling, who beat Michael Phelps in the Rio Olympics, will compete in the men's 100m butterfly final alongside Dressel on Saturday.
Hailey Hernandez, a Texan diver who is coming to UT in the fall, was the youngest competitor to advance to the semifinal round of the women's 3m springboard competition early Saturday morning.
Track and field
UT alum Teahna Daniels has advanced to the women's 100m semifinals alongside teammates Javianne Oliver and Jenna Prandini after a heat-winning time of 11.04 seconds. Daniels and crew will look to establish themselves as the world's fastest women in the semifinals at 6:15 a.m. followed by the finals at 8:50 a.m.
The women's 100m trio were some of the first to hit the track on Thursday. Team USA DQ'd in the 4x400m mixed race on Thursday, squandering veteran Alyson Felix's quest for another medal. Ethiopia and Uganda are the only current medal-winners for the sport, but UT alum Melissa Gonzalez will look to change that on Saturday morning as she competes in the women's 400m hurdles. Fellow Longhorn Pedra Seymour will begin her fight to beat her 6th place finish in Rio as she runs in the prelims for the women's 100m hurdles for Team Bahamas on Saturday, while men's long jumper Steffin McCarter will look to qualify in the men's long jump competition that afternoon.
The world's fastest men will begin competition Saturday morning as well, with Team USA's Trayvon Bromell as the favorite to get the gold.
Other UT track stars including world-record shot putter Ryan Crouser (Thursday), Team Jamaica 4x400m runner Stacey-Ann Williams (Thursday), and long jumper Tara Davis (Sunday) will hit the track next week.
Win or go home AND WE’RE NOT GOING HOME YET 😤 pic.twitter.com/qdK7Aa7c4s— U.S. Soccer WNT (@USWNT) July 30, 2021
Team USA advanced to the semifinals in penalty kicks in an adrenaline-pumping match early Friday morning. Next, they'll play Canada in the semifinals to compete for that top spot and avenge their loss in Rio as they fight for the finals. On Team Canada's Olympic team is UT midfielder Julia Grosso, who has helped her team to a win and three draws thus far.
Kevin Durant and team have had a rocky start to the Olympics, leaving many to wonder if their No. 1 status is in jeopardy. The team suffered their first Olympic loss since 2004 in a 83-76 upset against France. They bounced back with an easy win against Iran, though the win was expected against a team with no NBA players in their roster. Next up is the Czech Republic, a team with two NBA talents that the U.S. is expecting to smother at 8:30 a.m. Saturday.
The USA Women's basketball team picks up their first W 🚨— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) July 27, 2021
USA takes down Nigeria, 81-72
A'ja Wilson (Olympic debut): 19 PTS | 13 REB pic.twitter.com/cRwnEgAzhn
The U.S. women's basketball team, including UT alum Ariel Atkins, have shakily continued their world dominance in Tokyo. The team is 2-0 in Group B after an 81-72 defeat over Nigeria and 86-69 victory over Japan. Atkins celebrated her birthday on the same day as the Japan defeat.
Next up, the team will look to increase their winning margins as they take on France at 12:40 a.m. on Monday.
Longhorn middle blocker Chiaka Ogbogu and the Team USA volleyball team are fighting hard for their first gold medal in 57 years. The team has already swept defending gold medalists China and was undefeated in group play with wins over Argentina and Turkey as they head to the quarterfinals starting Wednesday, They'll look to defeat the ROC and Italy in their final group rounds along the way.
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