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SiGNa Chemistry research director stays in Pa., works on new shale technique at York College incubator

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Paul Krumrine, in his wet lab at York College's J.D. Brown Center for Entrepreneurship, is working in the midstate on technology for recovering more oil from the ground — and a new technique for extracting shale gas.
Paul Krumrine, in his wet lab at York College's J.D. Brown Center for Entrepreneurship, is working in the midstate on technology for recovering more oil from the ground — and a new technique for extracting shale gas. - (Photo / )

Paul Krumrine worked in enhanced oil recovery for a Philadelphia-area company for about 15 years, moved on to consulting and today lives on the farm in the Hanover area where he grew up.

Thanks to his roots, his buffalo and a new wet lab at York College's J.D. Brown Center for Entrepreneurship, Krumrine is working in the midstate on technology for recovering more oil from the ground — and a new technique for extracting shale gas.

The application creates pressure and could lower the amount of water needed to hydraulically fracture a well, and it's been shown to dramatically reduce the concentrations of certain materials in flowback water that returns to the surface.

New York-based SiGNa Chemistry Inc. is Krumrine's employer.

When he came on board as an employee, he would have been working at facilities in California. Instead, the company was accommodating.

"California's nice, but I'm a Pennsylvania person," Krumrine said. "And actually, I have some buffalo, and I said, 'My buffalo don't want to travel out to California either.'"

That led to outreach to colleges to see if they had the right laboratory space available and whether he could use it.

The search ended at the new York College wet lab, a term for what people might traditionally think of as a laboratory with scientists working with substances in beakers, syringes and under fume hoods.

The results could yield dividends in the form of midstate business development.

SiGNa Chemistry President and CEO Michael Lefenfeld said that, as the firm grows in this space, it would look to expand where it now already has a footprint, on the doorstep of the Marcellus Shale.

Smell of success

The history of SiGNa's sodium silicide technology started with Lefenfeld's grandfather, who quit smoking and wanted a replacement for the matches he used to carry and strike to deodorize the bathroom after using it.

He wanted something he could throw in the water that would react and deodorize the room, Lefenfeld said.

His thoughts went to a high school chemistry demonstration in which the teacher throws a piece of sodium metal into water.

But the fire created in such a reaction was a problem.

"So I just started thinking about how to make sodium safer," Lefenfeld said. He enlisted the help of James Dye, who was retiring from Michigan State University and who is still with SiGNa.

Once they figured out how to take the fire out of the reaction, they began to think of other possible applications, he said.

The company is commercializing its technology in many sectors, from pharmaceutical and industrial areas to oil and gas application, Lefenfeld said.

Right place, right time

Krumrine is now working on oil and gas applications at York College's J.D. Brown Center for Entrepreneurship through a sublease, said Richard Wurzbach, president of York Laboratories LLC, doing business as MRG Labs.

The business also recently moved into the center's business incubator.

Wurzbach had judged a science fair with Gregory Foy of the chemistry program at York College, and their conversation helped lead to joining the college's Chemistry Industry Advisory Council and relocating to the J.D. Brown Center.

Being right on campus helps the company take advantage of the college's resources, including interns, he said.

The company has developed a patented way of sampling grease within machinery called a Grease Thief. The properties of grease are more like a solid than oil, making it more difficult to sample, Wurzbach said.

Grease analysis results enable proactive maintenance on everything from factory equipment to wind turbines, he said.

Meanwhile, Wurzbach had lab equipment in storage that he got from a former employer.

He talked with center Executive Director Jeffrey Vermeulen about partnering for a wet lab available for budding entrepreneurs in the larger space it now occupies at the center compared with where it previously operated.

"A wet lab is not a commonly available thing," he said.

The lab officially opened with one tenant on board, SiGNa Chemistry, and has received other interest, Vermeulen said.

One of the additional inquiries has been on behalf of a New Jersey firm through the state Department of Community and Economic Development about establishing a Pennsylvania presence, he said.

A faculty member also is potentially interested in a venture in the wet lab space as well, Vermeulen said.

The college sees further development of the lab, he said.

Fracking future

The shale fracking advantages in SiGNa's technology are twofold, Krumrine said. Pressure from the large volume of hydrogen gas released in a chemical reaction aids the fracturing process.

Also, the reaction reduces substances such as barium, strontium and naturally occurring radioactive materials that otherwise are found in water returning to the surface from a hydraulically fractured well, he said.

Testing indicates concentration reductions of 74 percent for strontium and 88 percent for barium, and other reductions were higher, Krumrine said. The materials stay down underground, where the reaction occurs, he said.

"So if you can reduce those kinds of materials in your flowback water, it makes it easier to either recycle it or to dispose of it ultimately at some point in time," Krumrine said. "And also, because it generates a high amount of (hydrogen) gas, we think it reduces the amount of water that is required in the first place."

The concept has been fleshed out and patented, he said.

Now, he's sending out samples to interested drilling services companies for further testing.

The sodium silicide material also needs a coating, Krumrine said. To have the most benefit, the reaction can't begin until it's down the drilling hole and in the shale.

SiGNa Chemistry's sodium silicide application for enhanced oil recovery uses the generated heat, pressure and a chemical reaction similar to a detergent to help move oil from where it is trapped, Krumrine said.

Krumrine was asked about three years ago to consult for SiGNa, considering his background in enhanced oil recovery. Pressure from the sodium silicide reaction can achieve up to 10,000 pounds per square inch or more, he said.

"Once I got to see how this stuff performs first hand, I saw this might have some applicability to hydraulic fracturing and natural gas," Krumrine said.

York College expands center director's role to corporate, government relations

Jeffrey Vermeulen, executive director of the J.D. Brown Center for Entrepreneurship, recently assumed additional duties at York College as director of corporate and government relations.

People who can best accomplish goals in today's world are those who can navigate the nonprofit, government and private-sector worlds well, said Dan Helwig, dean of college advancement.

Vermeulen's experience with the Delaware County Chamber of Commerce, at what was then University of South Florida Polytechnic, before he came to York College and at the entrepreneurship center will be valuable in furthering the college's mission, he said.

"When you find somebody who can navigate those three areas, it's good to use them in those three areas," Helwig said.

Vermeulen spoke with the Business Journal about the new role and how his experience dovetails into accomplishing the mission of the college.

Q: Please tell me about your new duties with York College and how this new role came about.

A: I've added the title of director of corporate and government relations to my existing role of executive director of the J.D. Brown Center for Entrepreneurship. In my role as director of the entrepreneurship center, a lot of times I've found myself interacting with business leaders in the community.

So when the opportunity came up to carry the mantle as far as corporate relations goes for and on behalf of the college, I was flattered that the dean thought I would make a good fit.

We've had corporate and government relations (roles) being filled by other people here on campus, and what ended up happening (was that) the two people who held those roles have subsequently taken on new responsibilities here on campus.

And the dean saw an opportunity to harness the economic development component of the J.D. Brown Center for Entrepreneurship and the corporate relations work that I was already kind of doing and bring it all under one roof.

What are some of the initiatives you will be working on?

With corporate relations, I am working with the various industry advisory councils here on campus as one tool in the toolbox, including chemistry and engineering. It is a great relationship we have with the business community.

I was able to attend my first (Chemistry Industry Advisory Council) function and really got a good handle on just how valuable the college is, and can be, in both preparing our students for professional life and working with the industry advisory council to make sure the curriculum is relevant, making sure there are avenues for our students to get internships and co-ops if available and, conversely, … (companies) can take advantage of assets we have on campus, say, in our chemistry lab.

On the government side, we are an independent college, and there are funding opportunities available whether they are in Washington or in Harrisburg. We like to say that if we aren't at the table, we are going to find ourselves on the menu, so it's my job to make sure our interests are represented.

As far as funding goes, is that statement recognition of how tight government budgets have gotten?

Certainly, public budgets are strained. But that being said, there are programs in place that independent colleges and universities are certainly invited to seek funding through. And why I think I was tapped for this position is that I can speak directly to our economic development, our outreach, our job creation work … and there is certainly a premium in this (Corbett) administration on the innovation economy. And that's where a college like ours, it makes sense that we would be able to take advantage of some of these funding programs.

Brent Burkey

Brent Burkey

Brent Burkey covers York County, agribusiness, energy and environment, and workforce issues. Have a tip or question for him? Email him at brentb@cpbj.com. Follow him on Twitter, @brentburkey.

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