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Thinking big

Terra Nova Young Innovator Award for Earth Sciences professor

Research | Frameworks in Action

By Jeff Green

A prestigious research award is allowing Dr. Penny Morrill to develop a piece of technology that has the potential to make big headlines in the scientific world.

The associate professor, Department of Earth Sciences, Faculty of Science, is the latest recipient of the Terra Nova Young Innovator Award, supported on behalf of the partners in the Terra Nova oil field by Suncor as operator.

Sky’s the limit

The $50,000 award is allowing her to build and test a new atmospheric methane gas sampler. If proven successful, it could be utilized in a variety of applications ranging from detecting new oil and gas reservoirs to searching for life on Mars, making Memorial the first location east of Ontario performing this type of cutting-edge research.

“The detection of methane alone cannot tell us what the source of methane is. Methane gas contains an isotopic ‘fingerprint’ that usually identifies its source,” explained Dr. Morrill, who has been with Memorial since 2008.

“People have been sourcing methane using these methods for years; however, these methods require a relatively high concentration of the gas, and sometimes the application of these isotopic methods can’t distinguish the gas source. Therefore a new isotopic method for sourcing methane is needed and a concentrating method that does not change the methane’s isotopic fingerprint is required.”

Potential for good

The Terra Nova Young Innovator Award recognizes and supports outstanding young faculty members whose research is particularly innovative and whose specific proposal has real potential to make a significant impact on society.

“Suncor’s contributions to the Terra Nova Young Innovator Award are a strong testament of the company’s commitment to innovative research here at Memorial.” — Dr. Richard Marceau

Dr. Morrill’s research focuses on finding new ways to sample, concentrate and source methane which is vital in the search for discovering new oil and gas reserves, developing new climate change models and searching for life on other planets.

She’s collaborating with Dr. Susan Ziegler, Memorial’s Canada Research Chair in Environmental Science and Dr. Shuhei Ono, associate professor, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, U.S.

“The Terra Nova Young Innovator Award funding will allow me, in collaboration with Drs. Ono and Ziegler, to design and test a methane sampler for field deployment,” noted Dr. Morrill. “The sampler will also be capable of collecting and concentrating methane being emitted at other locations on Earth.”

Dr. Morrill says the sampler will also be able to collect and concentrate samples for the purpose of calculating flux and determining the source of the gas.

“We were very impressed by the objectives and methodology proposed by Dr. Morrill in her submission, which is enhanced by her collaboration with Dr. Ziegler and Dr. Ono,” said Brent Janke, vice-president, east coast for Suncor. “Their work has the potential to enhance our industry in many ways and we were happy to provide the research award on behalf of the Terra Nova partners.”

Dr. Penny Morrill is developing a piece of technology that has the potential to make big headlines in the scientific world.
Dr. Penny Morrill is developing a piece of technology that has the potential to make some big headlines in the scientific world.
Photo: Chris Hammond

Dr. Richard Marceau, vice-president (research) at Memorial, says Suncor’s ongoing support helps bolster Memorial’s research profile.

“Suncor’s contributions to the Terra Nova Young Innovator Award are a strong testament of the company’s commitment to innovative research here at Memorial,” said Dr. Marceau. “Through collaborations with industry partners, talented young faculty members such as Dr. Morrill are able to advance important research projects that could positively impact the economy of Newfoundland and Labrador while contributing to international scientific studies.”

Recruit and train

In addition to advancing her research, Dr. Morrill says Suncor Energy’s financial support will also allow her to recruit and train top graduate students as part of her research project.

Since joining Memorial in 2008, Dr. Morrill has authored 13 scientific publications. She has presented her research at national and international conferences and has given more than 10 invited talks. Her research is supported by funding agencies such as the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, the Canada Foundation for Innovation, the Canadian Space Agency and the Research & Development Corporation of Newfoundland and Labrador.


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