Scotland’s carbon capture and storage (CCS) and broader geosciences communities will soon have access to a world-leading facility for imaging in situ experiments in real-life conditions, thanks to a Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) grant to the University of Strathclyde..
The new equipment means that scientists studying carbon capture and storage (CCS) will be able to explore much more fully what happens in different sub-surface reservoir conditions once carbon dioxide (CO2) is injected.
The award comes as recognition continues to grow for CCS as a key technology in mitigating climate change. The process could reduce greenhouse gas emissions through permanent and safe underground storage of CO2 from big emitters in the industrial and power sectors.
The NERC GeoX suite is designed to allow powerful x-ray tomographic imaging of samples during experiments at geological conditions. Tomography is a technique for displaying the internal structure of a solid object. Experimental equipment can be put inside the scanner, enabling scientists to watch processes, such as dissolution and precipitation, fracture formation and sealing, corrosion and fluid flow, as they happen. Experiments can be performed at down-well temperature and pressure levels, and with a range of fluids.
The £271,000 NERC infrastructure grant to purchase the equipment was awarded to Dr Kate Dobson, Chancellor’s Fellow in Energy at the University of Strathclyde, in partnership with Diamond Light Source.
“We will be able to look at in situ behaviours as close to the real world as we’re going to be able to do in a lab – understanding how flows actually behave, how things react, how porosity is changing with mineral precipitation or dissolution,” says Dr Dobson, who moved to Strathclyde from Durham University last year. “All of these things we can now watch as they actually happen.”
She adds: “We will get quantitative measures for ‘how’, not just ‘what’. Where the modelling hits a wall at the moment is that we just have before and after, and only a little validated data for during. That’s what this kit is going to be able to do.”
The equipment is widely used in materials science and complements Strathclyde’s existing tomography facilities, which were a factor in Dr Dobson’s move to the university. Strathclyde, which is a partner in Scottish Carbon Capture & Storage (SCCS), the UK’s largest CCS research group, also has a Carbon Capture Simulator.
A multi-disciplinary scientist, Dr Dobson holds a joint appointment as a lecturer in both Civil & Environmental Engineering and Chemical & Process Engineering. She is a geologist by background, taking a PhD at the University of Glasgow after a first degree in Earth Sciences & Physics at Durham.
She has also worked in materials science, including at the University of Manchester. Her research focuses on the behaviour and evolution of both natural and man-made materials: how the microstructure of a material evolves through time, and therefore changes the properties and behaviour of larger systems.
“I put the bid together to get the kit for the next level of experiments myself and my colleagues would like to see done. Most of it is modified from off-the-shelf equipment that is available to material scientists but doesn’t hit geological conditions quite right for ours needs,” she says. “It’s also about getting access – existing equipment is often oversubscribed. So, it’s a capability and capacity mixture for the geoscience and geoenergy communities.”
She expects CCS scientists to be interested in using the equipment, for example, for porosity permeability flow cell research. It will be able to examine samples with 2mm diameter up to 5-7cm diameter at temperatures ranging from - 40°C to 1200°C and is designed for use with a range of tomography scanning systems. Researchers can either come to Strathclyde or can hire it to use on their own systems.
“The idea is to train the community and then they can hire it,” says Dr Dobson. “You want to use the scanner that is best for your experiment so the kit goes to the machine where the right kind of scanning can be done.”
She hopes to begin training courses early in 2021, probably starting with the next cohort of students at GeoNetZero CDT, the Heriot-Watt University led Centre for Doctoral Training in Geoscience and the Low Carbon Energy Transition, with places also likely to be available to others. Heriot-Watt is also a partner in SCCS.
The PhDs on offer include a CCS-focused project on induced carbonate precipitation to improve reservoir storage integrity, supervised by Dr Dobson.
“With this equipment, we can track how porosity, permeability and carbonate precipitation evolve through time,” she says. “We can work on improving the seals if we can cause precipitation where we want it.”
Dr Dobson also plans to give conference presentations on GeoX and to run training courses at the Diamond Light Resource, the UK’s national synchrotron facility, where the equipment can also be used.
“I’m as much a facilitator as I am a researcher with this project," she says. "A lot of my time is spent on the engagement side. People don’t know what they can do with this equipment because it’s new,” . “I’m speaking to colleagues across Scotland about projects, both academic and commercial. You want to put it out there and get people thinking what they can use it for.”