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ACS Petroleum Research Fund: 65 years of sowing seeds

by Katherine Giles, Chair, Committee on the Petroleum Research Fund
May 29, 2020 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 98, ISSUE 21

 

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Credit: Courtesy of Katherine Giles
Katherine Giles

The Petroleum Research Fund (PRF) is the largest research-granting vehicle administered by the American Chemical Society. For the past 65 years, the PRF grant system has been helping academic researchers kick-start their research program by providing seed money for new, potentially transformative research avenues in petroleum-related science.

Since 1954, ACS PRF has provided more than $700 million of support through more than 17,500 research grants to principal investigators at colleges and universities in the US and other countries. Last year ACS PRF awarded 176 research grants totaling $17.7 million.

The PRF Trust was created in 1944, when seven major oil companies donated their stock in Universal Oil Products. After 10 years, the legal fees related to the formation of the PRF Trust were paid, allowing the returns of the PRF endowment to be used by ACS for advanced scientific education and fundamental research in the petroleum field, defined as petroleum, natural gas, coal, shale, tar sands, and like materials.

Though the financial impact of ACS PRF grants over the past 65 years has been significant, I’d like to address the aspect of this seed funding that in my opinion is priceless. That is, how do you put a value on providing both financial stimulus and conceptual backing at a critical moment for an early-career scientist to develop their initial career pathway or for an established scientist to collect the preliminary data needed to provide proof-of-concept in a new research direction? I’d like to share one data point—the impact of PRF on my own career story.

I invite you to submit your story to prfinfo@acs.org using the subject line “My PRF Story.

In the early ‘90s I was a new hire at the Exxon Production Research Company laboratory in Houston studying reservoir facies in Jurassic-age carbonate strata rimming the Gulf of Mexico basin. I remember traveling to the Sierra Madre in Mexico to collect outcrop analog data for subsurface Gulf Coast Jurassic oil fields. While assisting a colleague in analyzing remote sensing data from the La Popa Basin, I became fascinated by an ancient island reef ecosystem and how it is tied to the vagaries of salt tectonics.

When I returned from the trip, I received a letter from Timothy Lawton of New Mexico State University announcing a new academic position at his university. I soon joined New Mexico State University to investigate the interplay between sedimentary systems and salt tectonics. Branching out in a completely new direction was risky, and one of my biggest challenges was acquiring grant money.

Lawton and I applied for and received a $60,000 PRF AC Grant to support three masters-level graduate students to undertake field research on salt tectonic relationships in the La Popa Basin. Our findings demonstrated that stratal thinning and folding near diapirs was the result of sedimentary processes and drape-folding related to adjacent minibasin subsidence, which was in opposition to the common dogma at the time that diapirs actively punched their way upward through the strata driven by buoyancy differences, which produced drag folding.

Our research provided the first systematic and detailed documentation of the near-diapir petroleum system, including sedimentologic transitions, stratigraphic architecture, structural geometry, and fluid migration at several different types of steep-sided salt structures, including flaring salt stocks and a secondary salt weld.

We used part of the PRF funds for the students to present their findings at the annual American Association of Petroleum Geologists meeting. Through our groundbreaking studies, my students were able to secure jobs upon graduation, and I launched a successful industry-sponsored research consortium in salt tectonics.

The La Popa Basin Salt-Sediment Interaction Research Consortium has evolved into a multimillion dollar, international, interdisciplinary research team that continuously strives to push the science of salt tectonics forward by developing and testing the latest models using state-of-the-art technologies.

It all started with PRF supplying our first seed support that enabled us to rent a four-wheel-drive vehicle to get us back into the rugged, remote mountains of northern Mexico to test a hypothesis. Most importantly, it started with the confidence we gained from PRF’s initial support to make that journey. That’s priceless.

PRF is seeking stories on how PRF seed money has impacted your career, research, and students. I invite you to submit your story to prfinfo@acs.org using the subject line “My PRF Story.” These anecdotes will be compiled on the PRF website and may also be used in social media associated with the 65th anniversary celebration.

Current plans, if conditions permit, include a presidential symposium at the ACS Fall 2020 National Meeting in San Francisco featuring PRF award recipients Harry Gray and Nobel laureate Robert Grubbs, both of the California Institute of Technology. And technical sessions will feature the research of recent recipients. For more on the program, visit acs.org/content/acs/en/funding-and-awards/grants/prf.html.

Views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of C&EN or ACS.

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