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Dark Energy: Petroleum Engineering for Chemical Engineers

“Most people in the United States have no idea where our energy comes from, and oil is most of our energy,” says Scott Jackson, PhD., visiting professor at the College of Engineering’s Department of Chemical Engineering.  Jackson teaches a “Dark Energy: Petroleum Engineering for Chemical Engineers” course that he developed two years ago for Villanova. Offered to juniors and seniors, the course focuses on the upstream petroleum industry and technical aspects of finding, producing and refining petroleum products.

Jackson previously directed the microbial enhanced oil recovery program at DuPont Corporation in Delaware, a joint venture with British Petroleum, to research the possibility of using naturally occurring microbes from an oil reservoir to improve oil recovery. Jackson led a team of 20 scientists who did DNA sequencing of microbes to understand what was happening when microbes were living and growing in an environment that represented the rock, oil and water that is the underground oil reservoir.

On the first day of class Jackson asks his students what country has produced the most oil in recent years. “They typically answer Russia or Saudi Arabia. But, there’s been a revolution in producing oil, and the United States is actually now the world’s largest producer of oil and will export more oil this year than it will import,” he notes.

“Right off the bat I talk about climate change,” he says. “My course does not ignore the great issues with using fossil fuels, but rather shows why inexpensive petroleum-based fuels and related products have been a key driver in the rapid world development into the 21st century.”

Dark Energy: Petroleum Engineering for Chemical Engineers

Jackson teaches about the energy shocks of the 1970s and how people's behavior was altered when petroleum-based energy became precious. “It seems that it is not so precious now, and people consume it in excess -- as evidenced by the muscle cars that are very popular now and the fact that the most popular selling vehicle in America gets just 15 miles per gallon.”  

Course materials include industry specific books such as Titan, the Life of John D. Rockefeller; The Boom, How Fracking Ignited the American Energy Revolution and Changed the World, and the 2007 film There Will Be Blood, about a California oil man during the oil boom of the early 20th century. Lecture topics range from the history of oil; oil disasters; petroleum politics; the 1970s Arab oil embargo; geology; permeability; refining; fracking and other topics. Course objectives are that students will learn where most of our country’s energy comes from, how we get it, and how geopolitics effects our supply of energy. This includes the importance of petroleum and natural gas-based energy on the development of our modern society and the need to mitigate their effects on the world’s climate.

Homework consists of 500-word essays in the first half of the semester and quantitative problems in the second half. Essay topics range from interviewing a person who lived through the oil shocks of the 1970s; exploring whether renewable energy is truly renewable; and writing an obituary about John D. Rockefeller.

One class assignment tasks students with trying to debunk a common belief held by some petroleum engineers who say that it takes more energy to create a wind or solar power installation than the amount of energy they will produce over their lifetimes.  As students conduct their research they discover that there is an energy return on energy invested: for wind power the energy return on energy invested is very high; solar is almost as high. 

Jackson’s point in this assignment is that people need to think of petroleum as the bridging fuel that we invest to make these sources of renewable energies.

“My ultimate goal is to educate students as to where the energy they use comes from and how it gets to us, and to help them understand that climate change is real and that we all need to take responsibility for reducing carbon emissions,” says Jackson.

“Captivating Courses” is a feature introducing readers to some of the unique classes offered at Villanova University. Numerous courses across the University’s six schools and colleges provide students the opportunity to examine interesting and relevant topics. These features will give you a glimpse into some of these courses and the experiences they provide students. Find all of the Captivating Courses here.