Y-Prize winners set sights on fracking safety

The third annual Y-Prize was awarded on Wednesday, Jan. 28, to seniors Teddy Guenin, a student in Penn’s Jerome Fisher Program in Management and Technology, and Ashwin Amurthur, a dual-degree student studying in the Wharton School and the School of Engineering and Applied Science. Their proposal, G-FET Frack Technologies, aims to increase the safety of natural gas fracking with a custom-designed nanotech sensor.

They won $5,000 and a license to commercialize their idea.

The Y-Prize is a business plan and invention competition co-sponsored by the School of Engineering and Applied Science, the Penn Center for Innovation, and the Wharton School’s Mack Institute for Innovation Management. Student teams are challenged to find novel uses for technology developed by Penn researchers. At the grand finale, four finalists had 10 minutes to pitch their business idea to a panel of judges.

In this year’s Y-Prize, teams could choose from three patented nanotechnologies developed by Penn Engineering professors: Mark Allen’s fast-charging batteries, A. T. Charlie Johnson’s graphene, or Kevin Turner’s tunable adhesion.

Amurthur and Guenin’s idea was to use graphene to help detect leaks during fracking. Typically, crews drill a hole more than two miles deep into the ground and pump high-pressure fluid into the hole to crack the rock and release trapped natural gas. While most of the fracking fluid is removed, some can leak into surrounding groundwater, contaminating it with toxic chemicals.

As Amurthur explains, graphene is a one-atom thick lattice of carbon that boasts incredible properties: It conducts electricity, transports heat, and withstands force more than any other known material. Their prize-winning idea, named GFET-Frack, or graphene field effect transistor, uses graphene as a sensor.

The sensor, Amurthur says, “utilizes the high conductivity of the graphene, which means it is “sensitive to very small changes on its surface.”

Amurthur and Guenin are looking to detect aromatic compounds, such as benzene, which is carcinogenic and often used in fracking fluid. When these compounds come in contact with the graphene, it changes the nanomaterial’s electrical properties.

The field effect transistor “applies varying voltages to the graphene sheet, and consequently you get changes in current output, which change in respect to different chemical interactions,” Amurthur says.

Guenin grew up in Hershey, Pa. and was exposed to fracking near his hometown. When this year’s Y-Prize contest was announced, the state of New York had just banned the practice, prompting Guenin to think about how to use graphene sensors to detect leaks of fracking fluid.

Guenin joined forces with his classmate Amurthur, who works with graphene in Johnson’s lab.

Applying the technology to make fracking safer was a no-brainer.

“As we keep going on, we’ve seen it’s such a pressing issue. There is an immediate need,” says Amurthur.

The Y-Prize, Guenin says, “is about bringing technology from the lab to the marketplace. I can take something that I’m good at on the engineering side, and create a business with it. It’s the first time I’ve seen that they can both work together.”