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Heather Lavalleur

Scientist studies how microorganisms mitigate macro-scale greenhouse gases

Heather Lavalleur

At the National Energy Technology Laboratory in Albany, Ore., microbiologist Heather Lavalleur is discovering how microorganisms respond to pressurized carbon dioxide. Her research in the NETL Postgraduate Research Program could help advance the underground storage of this destructive greenhouse gas.

Heather Lavalleur plans to join the Peace Corps to teach science somewhere around the world, but for now she is on native soil gaining relevant research skills and expertise she can deploy later to teach more effectively.

With a master’s degree in microbiology from Oregon State University, Lavalleur is participating in the National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL) Postgraduate Research Program, managed by the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education. Assigned to the Albany Research Center in Albany, Ore., she is part of a globally sustained effort to combat the rise in greenhouse gases by investigating methods for carbon capture and long-term storage.

Because carbon dioxide is captured naturally through various organic processes, scientists like Lavalleur are exploring how microorganisms could play a pivotal role in removing carbon dioxide from the environment.

“Microorganisms are everywhere and are major players in any earth system,” said Lavalleur. “For that reason, it is important to understand how microorganisms are going to be affected by changes in the earth system, particularly climate change, because that in turn affects everything else.”

To conduct her research, Lavalleur collected a sample of groundwater and basalt core from more than a half-mile deep in a rock formation in eastern Washington. She chose this site because of a pilot project there that aims to inject carbon dioxide deep underground.

Back at NETL, she set up an experiment using pressure vessels—similar to little rice cookers, according to Lavalleur– to simulate the pressure and temperatures of the deep-well conditions necessary for geologic carbon sequestration in basalt rock. She also established a control group of pressure vessels without the microorganisms.

“We found that the presence of microorganisms helped store the carbon dioxide in a more stable form underground,” she said, explaining that the pressure vessels without microorganisms formed thinner precipitates than those with the microorganisms. “Thus, the presence of microorganisms played a critical role in the safety and permanence of geological carbon storage in basalts.”

This research helped advance the field of microbiology and carbon sequestration.

“There have been a lot of studies with microorganisms you can grow in a lab, but no one had really investigated how a natural microbial community responds,” said Lavalleur.

Lavalleur’s next part of the project will investigate microbial communities in sandstone formations related to enhanced oil recovery operations. These operations can involve the injection of carbon dioxide or other gas into an oil field in order to “push up” hard-to-get oil.

Lavalleur presented her findings of the basalt research at the annual American Geophysical Union conference in December 2012, an opportunity granted to her through the NETL Postgraduate Program.

Through her experience, Lavalleur gained skills in research paper writing, technology operations and collaboration with other scientists across various disciplines.

“I think the NETL program is very well run, and it provides participants with the opportunity to see how things work at a national lab compared to a university,” said Lavalleur. “The NETL scientists are all really helpful and excited about the project I am working on; I definitely think the ORISE program helps you prepare for a career in research.”

After Lavalleur’s projected stint in the Peace Corps, her dream is to become a microbiology professor.

“I am passionate about teaching the next generation of scientists,” she said. “I plan on encouraging students to apply to programs like ORISE to give students the opportunity to experience government research and apply what they have learned in school to problems of national and global importance.”