Heriot-Watt professor lands €3m award to grow ‘rocks that talk’ in quest for oil exploration and carbon-capture data breakthrough

Professor Mercedes Maroto-Valer
Professor Mercedes Maroto-Valer

A professor at Heriot Watt University has won a €3 million European Research Council Advanced Award for a ‘smart rocks’ project that could lead to a next-generation data breakthrough in oil extraction and carbon-capture.

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 underground porous rocks.

This is a complex process – depending on the type of rock and variations in temperature and pressure – which occurs deep underground where direct observation at pore-level is impossible.

The problem, says team-leader Professor Maroto-Valer, is that the rocks cannot ‘talk to us’. Her solution is simple: Make your own rocks that can ‘talk’.

Professor Maroto-Valer’s team plan to 3D print their own porous rocks with built-in micro sensors.

Thus they will replicate in laboratory conditions what actually happens deep underground and provide information at a microscopic level which has simply not been hitherto available.

Professor Maroto-Valer said: “While we have some idea about how liquids and gases move through porous rocks at a large scale, we haven’t yet 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.

“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.”

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 applications received across all panels and disciplines. 

The grants are awarded under the ‘excellent science’ pillar of Horizon 2020, the EU’s research and innovation programme to enable researchers to pursue the most promising ideas and carry out ‘frontier research with potentially ground-breaking impact on science and society.’

Professor Richard Williams, Principal of Heriot-Watt University, said: “We are very pleased that Professor Maroto-Valer has received this advanced European Research Council Award for a wonderfully innovative project designed to solve real-world problems through a lateral, multi-disciplinary approach.”

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