Sutton receives Department of Energy award to study improved hydrogeological modeling

A person wearing business attire poses for a photo in front of a large piece of rock.
Collin Sutton is a PhD candidate in Geoscience at UW–Madison.

Geoscience PhD candidate Collin Sutton has received the Department of Energy’s Office of Science Graduate Student Research Award, which will take him to Los Alamos National Laboratory later this summer to continue the work he’s done as a graduate student at UW–Madison.

Sutton specializes in hydrogeology, a field that studies underground water and other fluids. Specifically, his research looks at how fluids flow and transport other materials, like small particles or dissolved solutes, in fractures or breaks in the materials that make up the Earth.

Fractures may occur naturally, or they can be made by humans for oil and gas extraction, enhancing geothermal capabilities, producing better drinking water, and other purposes. But Sutton said that experts still don’t fully understand how fractures transmit water, especially when it comes to the mathematical models that researchers and companies use to predict how a system of fractures will work.

While mathematical models do exist, they often aren’t easy or quick to apply to a system. Sutton’s work with his advisor Chris Zahasky, assistant professor of geoscience, focuses on this problem.

“Let’s say you’re a company. It might not be realistic to run a model that takes a week or two, and you may not have the national lab resources and the computers that can do that. So, trying to figure out ways to make faster models that are useful to industry, academia, stakeholders, [and] regulators is useful,” he said. “There’s still this broad need for more understanding of how these [fracture networks] work physically, both in the lab and also how to make mathematical models that are capable and efficient enough that real people want to use it.”

A person wearing safety glasses stands in front of a work bench with a number of machines connected via cords and tubes. A computer screen showing multiple different program windows is visible.
Sutton in the lab with the flow-through experimental equipment he uses as part of his dissertation research.

Sutton is excited to work with a group at Los Alamos National Laboratory that has created a modeling framework for fractured networks. His dissertation work on how fluids move through fractures has been conducted at the lab scale, which uses smaller rock samples that can fit into the scanners he uses to study them. As part of this, Sutton has developed a flow and transport model that can explain what happens in the lab accurately.

“We’ve shown that this approach works at the lab scale, but we really need to scale it up,” he said.

Earning the Department of Energy research award to work with Los Alamos National Laboratory will help Sutton do just that. He will work with advisor Jeffrey Hyman to learn more about how the Los Alamos team does their modeling, then use those theories to approach his own research, perhaps creating a hybrid model between his work and that of the Los Alamos team.

“The hope is that you can combine the two and this actually does work at a larger scale, and it works very well,” he said.

Sutton studied geology as an undergraduate at the University of Tennessee at Martin, then earned a master’s from Auburn University specializing in hydrogeology. While he wanted to continue doing research after his master’s, he also wanted to see what it was like to work in hydrogeology professionally.

After working for two years in environmental consulting, Sutton’s interest in returning to research got stronger. His professional experience led him to realize there were a lot of topics in hydrogeology that no one fully understands.

“There’s this need for people who understand hydrogeology and also want to do research, because there’s a very human-level application to this, where learning more and having people trying to push the boundaries is important for all of us,” Sutton said.

Sutton expressed thanks to the mentors, professors, UW–Madison geology graduate students, and the wider community who have helped him along his journey to where he is now. In the long term, he hopes this work will lead to better modeling that can accurately predict fracture networks, which could help environmental companies better know how quickly and where a contaminant might move if it gets into a fracture network.

A person wearing hiking attire, a hat, and sunglasses stands on a flat section of mountain terrain. In the background, more mountains and a bright blue sky with white clouds are visible.
Sutton in the Andes.

“My goal with this is that we can upscale it in a way that enables industry or regulators to be able to model fractures in a way that’s quick and efficient, but also gives them enough detail and enough guarantee that we’re pretty good with how we can predict what’s happening in fractures,” he said.

Sutton said he is excited for his time at Los Alamos National Laboratory – although he is also sad to leave Madison for those months – and sees the experience as a key piece of his academic and professional development experience.

“I get to network with people who are really industry-leading, academic-leading people in this field of fracture network modeling,” he said. “For me, it’s very much the next step of, okay, I’ve done this at UW at the lab scale, can I grow my professional or academic skillset to go up to this next level?”

Chemical and Biological Engineering PhD student Seth Anderson also received the Department of Energy Office of Science Graduate Student Research Award. Read more about Anderson’s research from the College of Engineering.