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Focus on new faculty: Jesse Hampton, digging deep to harness Earth’s energy

Written By: Alex Holloway

Before coming to UW-Madison, Jesse Hampton worked in geomechanics research, particularly in the oil and gas industry. Though he has been away from academia for seven years, he always knew he’d come back.

Hampton joined the university in June 2019 as an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering, and will work in the department’s geological engineering program.

“I’m excited to return to academia because I get to work on so many exciting things,” Hampton says. “I get to work on things from enhanced geothermal systems, to oil and gas energy extraction, to energy, waste and CO2 storage, to underground construction and tunneling.”

Hampton says he’s particularly excited to research enhanced geothermal systems and the geomechanics associated with rock characterization and behavior in deep environments. He’s also interested in damage and microcracking, particularly the evolution of damage at multiple scales and its influence on apparent physical properties.

“The goal of work like this is to better characterize the physical properties and damage so that you can predict the performance of these materials when we interact with them,” he says. “It has safety and environmental implications.”

That work, along with underground structure research, also could have uses and implications beyond Earth.

“In order to have manned missions and structures on the moon and Mars, you need to understand the stability and physical properties of the soil and rocks that you’re interacting and building with,” he says.

Hampton earned his bachelor’s degree in civil and environmental engineering from Old Dominion University in 2010. While most of the work focused on water resources engineering and coastal engineering, a few courses in geotechnical engineering—and especially an earthquake engineering course—kindled his interest in geotechnical work. Hampton then enrolled at Colorado School of Mines, where he earned a master’s degree in 2012 and a PhD in 2015.

He researched enhanced geothermal systems as a graduate student, which introduced him to experimental geophysics—a field where his research carries on through today. After finishing school, Hampton worked in Halliburton’s Technology Center in the Applied Sciences group performing experimental geomechanical research and very large scale rock testing. A few years later, he joined New England Research, where he developed workflows for oil and gas operators focused on geomechanical and petrophysical characterizations.

“I always thought I’d end up going back to academia, but I wanted to get some experience with the current problems faced in industry today, so that my foundation would be grounded in the application of new technology,” Hampton says. “I also wanted to branch out of the one industry I was in, so that I could work in many areas—not just oil and gas.”

Now, as a faculty member, he’s translating his expertise in experimental geophysics to his future work as a researcher and educator—and UW-Madison’s collaborative nature, he says, is one of the things that most attracted him.

“I hadn’t actually been to a university that’s as collaborative as this,” Hampton says. “It’s really amazing, to be in a place that gives you access to a huge amount of labs all over the university that can do a diverse number of things, and also gives other people access to what you’re working on so that you can do more cross-disciplinary work.”