Smart rocks could lead to oil extraction and CO2 capture breakthrough

Professor Mercedes Maroto-Valer, from Heriot-Watt University, has received a prestigious European Research Council Advanced Award of €3million to pursue frontier research.  Her team will grow ‘smart rocks’ that can ‘talk’ to them about what actually goes on deep underground.

The security of water food and energy supplies, including large scale enterprises ranging from the efficient extraction of oil and gas from oilfields to the potential for storing captured carbon dioxide underground, all depend on a thorough understanding of how liquids and gases travel through porous rocks in the subsurface.

This is a complex field, depending on the type of rock and variations in temperature and pressure which occur deep underground, where direct dynamic observation at pore level is impossible.

The problem, says team leader Professor Maroto-Valer is that the rocks cannot talk to us. Her answer is simple: make you own that which can.

Professor Maroto-Valer’s team plan to 3D print their own porous rocks with incorporated micro sensors. Thus they will replicate in laboratory conditions what actually happens deep underground and provide information at a microscopic level which was simply not available before.

Professor Maroto-Valer said, “While extensive work over the years has given us some idea about how liquids and gases move through porous rocks at a large scale, we haven’t been able to understand how the process works at the very small pore scale, and how that process can differ between different types of porous rocks.

“We are very excited about this award and the opportunity to bring interdisciplinary innovation building upon Heriot-Watt world leading expertise in process and petroleum engineering and manufacturing.  This will allow us to unlock engineering research challenges in reactive transport in porous networks, transforming technological and environmental engineering applications.”

“By 3D printing our own core samples we can decide exactly what sort of rock we wish to study, and implanted micro-sensors will be able to tell us directly, in real-time, what is going on as gasses and liquids pass through them. This fundamental knowledge at such a tiny scale will feed hugely into our understanding of such processes at the large scale and enable us to maximise the success of industries from oil extraction to water safety and the storage of captured CO2.”

Professor Richard A Williams, principal of Heriot-Watt University, said, “I am really pleased to see that Professor Maroto-Valer has received this advanced ERC Award for a wonderfully innovative project designed to solve real-world problems through a lateral, multi-disciplinary approach.

“This is a prime example of Heriot-Watt as a leader in ideas and solutions, delivering innovation and excellence.”

The €3 million award was selected against very stiff competition, and is one of only 16 awards made across Europe in the products and process engineering panel, with over 1,900 applicants received across all panels and disciplines.  Professor Maroto-Valer is one of only two women selected in her panel category. The grants are awarded under the 'excellent science' pillar of Horizon 2020, the EU's research and innovation programme for senior researchers, to enable them to pursue their most promising ideas and carry out frontier research with potentially ground-breaking impact on science and society.

Carlos Moedas, European Commissioner for Research, Science and Innovation, said, "Through EU funding, the European Research Council is enabling the best minds in the world to create a better future for us all. These talented researchers are an integral part of what keeps us globally competitive. Their work will lead to new knowledge, it will fuel innovation and it can bring about market-creating innovation − generating employment opportunities and economic growth for Europe. Most importantly, the ideas developed by ERC grantees can lead to better, healthier, more innovative societies, if we engage Europeans in realising their potential."

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