Meet the 2021 ConocoPhillips Arctic Science and Engineering Endowment Award recipients

by Austin Osborne  |   

UAA's ConocoPhillips Integrated Science Building.
UAA's ConocoPhillips Integrated Science Building (Photo by James Evans / University of Alaska Anchorage)

As the nation’s only Arctic state, Alaska faces unique challenges and environmental conditions unlike anywhere else in the United States. Faculty and students at the University of Alaska Anchorage (UAA) are driving research that tackles Arctic challenges in practical ways, such as developing models and tools that assess the effects of permafrost thaw on infrastructure, evaluate pipeline integrity as a result of corrosion and monitor for oil spills in marine environments. 

Through the ConocoPhillips Arctic Science and Engineering Endowment Awards, the university awarded support to seven exploratory research projects for 2021 totaling more than $470,000.

“Through this generous gift from ConocoPhillips, UAA researchers have made direct and impactful contributions to Arctic science and engineering,” said Aaron Dotson, UAA associate vice chancellor for research. “The projects funded by this gift directly address issues of significant relevance to Alaska and the circumpolar north while engaging community members, businesses, students and faculty, providing the tools and skills required to address current and future challenges. Moreover, these projects act as the local research seed that grows into nationally relevant and externally funded research.” 

Selected projects must promote and grow the fields of Arctic science and engineering, demonstrate a likelihood of major scientific or engineering impact and strongly connect to community and industry. Programs, research and activities inclusive of Alaska students, communities, projects and opportunities are given priority. 

Created in 2008 as part of a $15 million gift from ConocoPhillips Alaska, the endowment provides annual support to Arctic science and engineering programs and research at UAA and is the largest endowment in the University of Alaska system.

The selected projects for fiscal year 2021 include: 

A framework to analyze infrastructure subsidence on thawing permafrost (Jifeng Peng, principal investigator; Joey Yang, co-principal investigator; Caixia Wang, co-principal investigator)
Most infrastructures on Alaska’s North Slope were built on permafrost and rely on “freezing strength” or bearing capacity of the frozen ground for foundation support. Existing models are insufficient for properly evaluating the effects of permafrost thaw on North Slope infrastructures. This project aims to establish an infrastructure-specific numerical model, which takes into account local soil, environmental conditions and specific infrastructure foundation designs. This establishes a framework for short- and long-term infrastructure subsidence forecasting, helps mitigate risk and could save millions in maintenance costs. 

Monitoring of warm permafrost response under climate change and mitigation of associated hazards: a case study of Bethel, Alaska (Joey Yang, principal investigator; Utpal Dutta, co-principal investigator; Jens Munk, co-principal investigator; Vicki Nechodomu, co-principal investigator)
The Arctic is experiencing the fastest climate warming on the planet, causing a widespread impact on infrastructure built on permafrost. Bethel, Alaska, is among the top 20 communities facing the greatest combined threat of erosion, flooding and thawing permafrost resulting from climate warming. This project aims to bridge the knowledge and data gap and assess the performance of existing countermeasures by conducting a thorough case study of Bethel. The results will help advance understanding of warm permafrost response to climate change and mitigate associated hazards to infrastructure. 

Climate change and the hydrogeochemistry of environmentally important elements in the Northwest Alaska Zn-Pb-Ag-Ba Mineral Belt (LeeAnn Munk, principal investigator; Jordan Jenckes, co-principal investigator; Eric Klein, co-principal investigator; Jens Munk, co-principal investigator)
This project investigates the effects of natural weathering and changing climate on stream geochemistry in the mineralized bedrock zones of northwest Alaska. This includes studying permafrost thaw and the flux of water and metal or solute into streams in the region. 

Oxidized petroleum detection in Alaska: Water, sediment and biological tissues (Patrick Tomco, principal investigator)
Oxidized petroleum has been identified as a priority class of chemicals that should be monitored following an oil spill, but in cold regions such as Alaska, the classification of these chemical compounds is poorly understood. This project advances new tools and techniques, including a fluorosensor design used to detect oxidized petroleum residues in the water column. Additionally, the project will characterize baseline levels of oxidized petroleum residues in water, sediment and biological tissues in Cook Inlet. 

Magnetostrictive sensor for integrity monitoring of unpiggable pipelines (Oleg Shiryayev, principal investigator; Raghu Srinivasan, co-principal investigator)
Corrosion persists as one of the major environmental, societal and fiscal threats to the integrity of pipelines. This project investigates the feasibility of magnetostrictive sensors that detect and monitor magnetic flux that leaks out of the pipe wall due to deterioration caused by corrosion. The magnetostrictive material will react to the magnetic flux by inducing strain, which a fiber optic strain sensor will measure. The promising, non-intrusive sensor concept does not rely on any form of electricity and can be deployed over large distances along pipelines. 

Improving offshore oil spill detection and monitoring by SAR images with deep learning (Caixia Wang, principal investigator) 
Efficiently monitoring open water in the Alaska Arctic is increasingly important for identifying oil slicks, providing early alerts and facilitating a rapid mitigation response. This project aims to develop a robust and automated framework based on convolutional neural networks to detect and classify oil slicks in synthetic-aperture radar images. This process provides valuable insights and a consistent, cost-effective solution for improving oil spill monitoring and preparedness in the marine environment.

Thermal decontamination of drill cuttings (Getu Hailu, principal investigator)
Drill cuttings are high-volume waste materials, such as mud and rock, that are removed from boreholes and brought to the surface during oil and gas drilling. Upon removal, these cuttings are notable for their high moisture content and contamination by oil or gas and biocides, causing problems for collection, storage and transportation during disposal. This project aims to produce a business-ready waste management tool for predicting combustion temperatures as a function of different parameters of drill cuttings such as moisture content, size distribution, mass flow rate, airflow rate and ambient temperature. 

The University of Alaska Anchorage is Alaska’s largest university, educating nearly 12,000 students annually. UAA’s mission is to discover and disseminate knowledge through teaching, research, engagement and creative expression. Learn more at 

ConocoPhillips has been leading the search for energy in Alaska for more than 50 years and is committed to being a good steward in communities where it operates. ConocoPhillips has been a long-standing supporter of the University of Alaska and has contributed more than $43 million to the university system, including its historic $15 million contribution to UAA in 2008.

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