Purdue is set to receive almost $20 million from the National Science Foundation to run a research center studying what its leaders are calling “bridge fuels” – in other words, fuel made from gas that's trapped in underground rock. It's extracted through hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. The researchers say it’ll be needed to satisfy the country’s demand for oil until renewable resources like wind and solar become dominant in the future.
But there was no mention of the “f-word” – fracking – during a public celebration of the grant or in any of the promotional materials concerning it.
It’s a controversial technology that some environmentalists say can poison ground water or cause earthquakes due to increased underground pressure.
But Purdue officials insist it wasn’t a conscious choice to avoid the charged terminology.
“I mean, if you wrote a book on this, we would talk about a lot of this stuff, right," says Purdue Vice President for Research and Partnerships Suresh Garimella, who’s also an engineer. "This is a short press release that talks about the research. And we’re focused on our contribution to this thing, which is a good contribution.”
Purdue will lead a five-university team in the research. That group will be headed by chemical engineering professor Fabio Ribiero, who says fracking isn’t a concern for this research.
“We didn’t mention the word hydraulic fracturing, or what they call fracking, because we are what’s called downstream," Ribiero says. "Those are the people that’s called upstream, that does the production of the oil. We don’t do production. Once the oil and the gas is out of the ground, that’s when we come.”
But other environmental scientists disagree.
“To the extent that they want to make the argument about this just being a bridge fuel that will help lower carbon emissions – or greenhouse gas emissions, I should say, then upstream is part of the equation that I think you can’t ignore,” says Colin Jerolmack, chair of New York University’s Environmental Studies Department.
He’s researched how communities are affected by fracking and says he doesn’t even believe the process poses large-scale threats to groundwater, as some other scientists have claimed. But he says he understands why Purdue’s press release might have avoided using the term.
“It mentions twice that there are industry partners, but doesn’t say who those industry partners are or what their role is," Jerolmack says. "I would imagine that their industry partners, if they’re from the gas industry, would not like them using the word fracking.”
Ribiero says he does see an endpoint to Purdue’s research -- in about half a century.
“We are not going to be able to not use fossil fuels for, we think, about 50 years," he says. "Why not use the resources that are in this country so that we could be energy efficient, but also we don’t need to use energy imported from other sources.”
But Hoosier Environmental Council Executive Director Jesse Kharbanda says researchers could move much quicker than that.
“Premier universities like Purdue ought to be at the forefront of focusing on zero carbon technologies," Kharbanda says. "We believe that our society can leapfrog from our current fossil fuel-dominated economy to a renewables economy far faster than might be perceived by some.”
And NYU’s Jerolmack says the longer it takes to get AWAY from fossil fuels – of which shale gas is one – the harder that transition will be.
“We create an entire infrastructure around it, right, like liquefying natural gas, creating all these process centers. Then we’re putting a lot of fixed capital in another hydrocarbon that is going to make us not want to transition to renewable energy. So I’m very skeptical of this argument about ‘bridge fuel’ in the long run," he says.
Terms such as fossil fuels or fracking are even avoided in the name of Purdue’s new engineering research center, which is called CISTAR – the Center for Innovative and Strategic Transformation of Alkane Resources.