Research themes

Research activity within IPE has traditionally spanned across the complete spectrum from exploration, through reservoir appraisal and development, to production technology. In addition our research remit includes focus beyond petroleum into the whole energy sector and related environmental issues.

We have 12 distinct research themes, each represented by an interactive grouping of academic/research staff and postgraduate research students. Because of the truly inter-disciplinary nature of much of our research, several of these themes span the rather artificial boundaries between exploration, development and production, while individual staff may also work across different themes. At the same time, several themes contribute to larger regional or national frameworks.

Carbon Capture & Storage

Scotland's potentially massive offshore CO2 storage capacity is of European significance. Supporting national CSS development is a unique collaboration of government, industry and research partners.

Theme leads: Prof. Eric Mackay and Prof. Mehran Sohrabi.

Carbonate Reservoirs

Carbonate reservoirs contain over 60% of the world's remaining conventional oil reserves and account for over 30% of the world's daily oil production. Similar volumes of heavy oil and gas can also be found in carbonate reservoirs. However, hydrocarbon recovery from carbonate reservoirs is low and over 80% of the oil and gas are often left underground.

The Carbonate Reservoir Group is an interdisciplinary research group working on the characterisation, modelling, and simulation of carbonate reservoirs to improve our ability predict hydrocarbon recovery from carbonate formations. We work from pore- to reservoir-scale, using a range of state-of-the-art experimental, modelling, and simulation technologies, many of them developed in-house.

A significant part of our research is conducted in close collaboration with the School of Geoscience at the University of Edinburgh through the International Centre of Carbonate Reservoirs (ICCR). ICCR is a strategic research alliance that comprises Europe's largest and most interdisciplinary team of academics working on carbonate reservoirs.

Theme leads: Prof. Patrick Corbett and Prof. Sebastian Geiger.

Enhanced Hydrocarbon Recovery

This theme, which is also known as the Centre for Enhanced Oil Recovery and CO2 Solutions, uses IPE-designed and built experimental micro-model facilities and modelling techniques to understand the fundamental recovery mechanisms governing multiphase displacements in hydrocarbon reservoirs. Techniques combine direct visualisation studies of displacements at the pore scale with core-scale studies carried out under reservoir conditions.

Ground-breaking work in this area has demonstrated how an increase in flow rate leads to improvements in gas-condensate relative permeability. This work is critical for reliable prediction of gas-condensate reservoir performance. The group developed rock-type specific correlations now available in major commercial reservoir simulators (VIP, ECLIPSE).

In the Characterization of 3-phase flow and Water Alternating Gas (WAG) Injection and Heavy Oil Depressurisation projects, novel micromodel technology has been used to elucidate the central pore-scale physics governing flow in porous media. The current three-phase network models are considered the most advanced of their type, particularly for the physics of wetting films and layers (which assist in the drainage of oil). One of the main theoretical advances is the application of thermodynamic theory to establish the proper two- and three-phase capillary entry conditions.

Depressurisation pore-scale physics has been extensively studied experimentally and theoretically. 3D network models for analysing pressure depletion in light and heavy oil systems have been developed, the first to explicitly couple non-equilibrium PVT behaviour, gravitational migration of discontinuous gas structures and viscous forces. Network modelling has also been used for to examine flow in biological systems (flow in vascular beds). This innovative approach received a Discipline Hopping Award from MRC and EPSRC and has highlighted a number of important new targets for therapeutic intervention.

Activities have expanded with the launch of several new JIPs and Research Council projects. The Heavy Oil Recovery project investigates a novel method for improving the cold production of heavy oils by combining water and CO2 injection, whilst the Carbonated Water Injection (CWI) project investigates the effect of CO2-enriched water flooding on reservoir rock and fluids as a method of oil recovery and CO2 storage. A new industrial project investigating hysteresis phenomena associated with reservoir re-pressurisation and a new BBSRC grant examining blood flow in developing retinal vasculatures.

A Scottish Enterprise Proof of Concept grant has recently been awarded to develop and commercialise a patented idea for prevention of CO2 leakage from geological reservoirs, which is considered a major risk for CO2 capture and storage.

Theme lead: Prof. Mehran Sohrabi.

Hydrate-Phase Equilibria (PVT)

International Centre for Gas Hydrate Research investigates aspects of flow assurance and gas hydrate research; problems in petroleum production and transportation, design and testing of low dosage hydrate inhibitors, hydrate monitoring and early warning systems, effect of impurities on the phase behaviour and properties of CO2-rich systems, PVT, risk of wax and asphaltene, and hydrates in sediments.

Research projects

Evaluation of Low Dosage Hydrate Inhibitors (May 2012-Apr 2015)

Key topics:

  • KHI and AA evaluation
  • KHI removal
  • Sour systems
  • Rheological behaviour

Hydrate Safety Margin Monitoring & Early Detection (Sep 13-Aug 15)

Key topics:

  • Integrating hydrate safety margin monitoring and early warning systems and integration with existing field facilities
  • Developing techniques for online detection of initial signs of hydrates
  • Further development or field trail/deployment of the previously developed techniques

The techniques developed in this JIP have been commercialised through Heriot-Watt's spin-out company (Hydrafact) resulting in significant savings. For further details and case studies please see SPE166596, IPTC13765 and Hydrafact website.

Gas Hydrates and Flow Assurance (Dec 2011-Nov 2014)

Key topics:

  • Low water content systems,
  • Inhibitor distributio,
  • Hydrates in sour systems

Impact of Common Impurities on Carbon Dioxide Capture, Transport and Storage (Oct 2011-Sep 2014)

  • Phase behaviour and properties of CO2-rich systems
  • Saline water-CO2 systems

PVT and Phase Behaviour of Reservoir Fluids (Jun 2012-May 2015)

Key topics:

  • CO2-oil systems
  • Limits of GC, HPHT IFT
  • Specific heat
  • Water content
  • Viscosity

Avoiding asphaltene problems: an integrated experimental and modelling approach (June 2014-May 2017)

Key topics:

  • Risk of asphaltene in EOR
  • Effect of shear rate on asphaltene deposition
  • Evaluating performance of asphaltene inhibitors, etc

Further areas of interest

Further areas of interest include: positive aspects of gas hydrate technology, such as their application in processing and transportation of hydrocarbon fluids, including CO2 or H2 capture and transport; role of hydrates in subsurface storage of CO2 and the potential of natural gas hydrates as a source of energy.

The research team

The research team consists of 22 staff and students with expertise in Chemical, Petroleum, Mechanical, and Electronic Engineering, Geology/Geochemistry, Physics/Geophysics, Radio-Physics, Polymer and Chemistry from more than 10 nationalities. The Centre has extensive experimental facilities housed in two well equipped laboratories and operating over a wide temperature and pressure range (-90 to 200°C and up to 2000 bar).


The recent addition of a new lab and a high pressure flow loop has considerably expanded the capabilities of the research group to conduct tests in real flow line conditions.

Links with industry

The group has close collaboration with the industry through 4 Joint Industry Projects with some 21 industrial sponsors. It also provides consultancy and short courses to the industry.

Theme lead: Prof. Bahman Tohidi.

Multiscale Modelling and Flow Simulation

Our group uses a wide range of innovative modelling techniques to understand the fundamental recovery mechanisms governing multiphase displacements in subsurface reservoirs. Techniques range from advanced pore-scale modelling approaches – including pore reconstruction protocols and the integration of multi-scale pore systems – through core-scale simulation of a variety of SCAL measurements, to the application of novel multi-grid methodologies at the reservoir scale. The modelling work is regularly informed by related experimental activity from several IPE Themes, including HRM micromodel experiments and HRM/PC coreflood data.

The current three-phase network models we have developed are considered the most advanced of their type, particularly in relation to the physics of wetting films and layers (which assist in the drainage of oil). Depressurisation pore-scale physics has been extensively studied and 3D network models have been developed for analysing pressure depletion in light and heavy oil systems, the first to explicitly couple non-equilibrium PVT behaviour, gravitational migration of discontinuous gas structures and viscous forces.  Network modelling has also been used to examine flow in biological systems (flow in vascular beds, tumours, and retinae) and has highlighted a number of important new targets for therapeutic intervention.

A framework for the classification of digital rocks by machine learning is currently being constructed to produce reliable and robust predictions of micro-to-macro relationships – it is underpinned by recent advances in support vector machine learning. Additionally, a number of new, highly efficient lattice Boltzmann simulation techniques have been developed at IPE for examining flow through low-porosity rocks and multi-scale interconnected pore systems.

Many of these modelling approaches have been informed by a powerful, rapid reconstruction methodology (PAM: Pore Architecture Modelling), that facilitates the  creation of multi-scale 3-D in silico porous media from a range of 2-D cross-sectional data.

Current activities

  1. Multiscale modelling of migration regimes associated with CO2 storage
  2. Pore-to-core simulation of water injection into heavy oils
  3. Analysis and modelling of steady- and unsteady-state water relative permeability
  4. Scale deposition at the pore-scale
  5. Guidance cues and blood perfusion in the developing retinal vasculature
  6. Diabetic wounds and the impact of obesity
  7. The role of connexins in tissue growth and bone implants
  8. Multiscale simulation of chemotherapy protocols

Theme lead: Dr. Steven McDougall.

Petroleum Geoscience

Petroleum Geoscience

Exploration is the upstream end of the oil and gas spectrum, represented by the large, active and rapidly expanding research theme of Petroleum Geoscience within IPE. It includes several main sub-themes: Reservoir Analogues and Description, Geomechanics and Rock Physics, and Seismic Interpretation. Each of these groups works closely with multiple industry sponsors, as well as receiving funding from research councils and charitable trusts. They also provide a wide array of consultancy work and short courses for industry. Through the Edinburgh Collaborative for Subsurface Science and Engineering (ECOSSE), we are closely allied with Edinburgh University geoscience, the British Geological Survey (Edinburgh) and the Scottish Universities Environmental Research Centre.

Reservoir Analogues and Description

This group specialises in the integration of geology and engineering for improved, quantitative, characterisation of oil and gas reservoir performance. Our central theme is geological outcrop and subsurface characterisation and its application in reservoir fluid flow simulation for better-informed reservoir management. Our outcrop analogue work is further informed by study of modern sedimentary systems, especially those of the deep sea.

Research and expertise cover the full range of sedimentary environments, with particular focus now on deep-water sedimentary systems, including contourites, deepwater massive sands, and thin-bedded turbidites. Our work on determining effective properties from amalgamated turbidite systems, and on the nature of sand body terminations, is fundamental to the hydrocarbon trapping, compartmentalisation and recovery in these systems. A specific remit has been established to look at regional effects of fluid flow across/along unconformities and their role in trapping hydrocarbons.

Research is also carried out in numerical well simulation for forward modelling of well test responses in heterogeneous reservoirs, creating a key element in the integration of static and dynamic data for reservoir description and subsequent geomodel building.

There are important links between this research and the Uncertainty Quantification theme with regard to rock property up-scaling. Complex-systems simulation methods have been added to the Group’s activities targeted at realistic flow modelling in very heterogeneous (fractured) media. These complex system simulations also underpin a broadening of topics to coastal salt-water intrusion, volcanic-related hydrothermal power, CO2 disposal, and complex hydrocarbon recovery processes. Further close links exist with our Carbonate Reservoirs and Unconventional Reservoirs themes.

Geomechanics and Petrophysics

This group studies the fundamental geomechanical processes of rock deformation and their effects on reservoir properties such as permeability, and applies that understanding to practical problems. The group develops and uses a wide range of apparatus (including the unique true-triaxial Smart Cell, the micro-permeameter invented and patented here, and innovative magnetic measurement equipment), along with complex numerical simulation methods. Our key focus is multiphysics modelling to link geomechanics with reservoir engineering topics.

Pioneering research into the application of Underground Coal Gasification to access coal reserves while also disposing of CO2 is underway. This work has been recognised as strategically important by the DTI. Further work in progress examines of how rock properties determine the observable near-wellbore effects in well testing and water injection.

We have well-recognised petrophysics research, originally set up with industry funding. Current research is focussed on magnetic petrophysics, using non-destructive magnetic methods for petrophysical parameter prediction.

We are part of two multi-institution partnerships that have generated new approaches to fault breaching and sealing analysis, and to combining geomechanics and seismics to create a subsurface open fracture identification method. Work on pore-scale models, with the Hydrocarbon Recovery Mechanisms theme, permits material property changes to be associated with deformation processes for the first time. These European University collaborations, Joseph Fourier and Institut Nationale Polytechnique, Grenoble, at the geomechanics-soil mechanics interface produced an invitation to join the European ALERT-Geomaterials Group of top universities.

Seismic Interpretation

We have a very new, industry-funded, seismic interpretation lab, fully equipped with work stations and appropriate software. Our basic aim is to solve complex 2D and 3D structural and stratigraphic seismic interpretation problems.

Research on the structural side will include: fault positioning, unravelling complex structures, identifying fracture sweet spots, and reducing uncertainties in our subsurface interpretation.

With regard to research in sedimentological interpretation of seismic data, we are interested in an improved characterisation of seismic facies, a novel approach to quantitative seismic geomorphometry, the recognition and distinction of along slope (contourite) from downslope seismic architecture and facies, and the incorporation of this into new sequence stratigraphic models.

The seismic interpretation lab will become an important training facility for PhD students and industry (CPD) courses.

Theme lead: Prof. Dorrik Stow.

Production Chemistry/Scale

The Production Chemistry Group carries out research on increasing the production efficiency of oil and gas wells. The main consortium project in this area is the Flow Assurance and Scale Team (FAST) Joint Industry Project.

The FAST consortium is widely recognized as the world leading research activity in Oilfield Scale prevention. FAST develops software (SQUEEZE) based on fundamental laboratory studies that is used to design field scale inhibitor treatments worldwide (applied in 100s fields and 1000s of wells).

The experimental methods designed by FAST over the years are summarised in their Laboratory Procedures Manual (Edition 4, 2006) which is a standard in the oil industry. The current FAST JIP is funded by 20 companies and the team is following a range of fundamental and applied topics including synchrotron studies of the crystal growth and inhibition, sulphide scale prevention, naphthenate formation, scale inhibitor transport modelling and kinetics of barite deposition.

The group has extensive core flooding and chemical analytical facilities including two ICP machines, HPLC and extensive access to IPE's Environmental Scanning Electron Microscopy facility, where novel porous media rock wettability results are observed.

Projects and collaboration with other themes

Theme lead: Prof. Ken Sorbie.

Production Engineering and Technology

The principal work in this theme is our current joint industry project. The project focuses on the added value achievable from intelligent wells and fields technology.

This JIP has built up expertise over a number of years gained from work completed in earlier phases; IWFsT phases I & II and IWsT.

Our research is developing evaluation methodologies and techniques for well and field monitoring, control and optimisation. These IWFsT tools are illustrated by their use for analysis of sponsor supplied case studies.

This JIP is supported by a wide range of industrial sponsors . We also provide consultancy and short courses to the industry.

Reservoir stress state management

The group also has  been involved in the study of water injection, sand production, rock testing and modelling related to production issues for both Clastic (mainly N Sea) and Carbonate reservoirs (mainly Middle East).

The modelling has concentrated around coupled modelling of stress related production process and has lead to the development of the concept of reservoir stress state management.

Theme lead: Prof. David Davies.

Reservoir Geophysics

There are several research activities within the Reservoir Geophysics theme.

The innovative research programme developed by the Reservoir Geophysics group has been used worldwide by industry to improve reservoir management.

Our research is funded principally by consortia of UK and overseas oil and gas, and service companies.

Our staff also provide high-quality consultancy services and short courses for industry. Interested companies should contact Prof Colin MacBeth.

Edinburgh Time-Lapse Project

In the Edinburgh Time-Lapse Project we concentrate on integrating 4D seismic and engineering, with a view to understanding the dynamic behaviour of the hydrocarbon reservoir.

Outcomes of this research are updates of the geological and simulation models for improved forward predictions of field performance.

Recognised achievements include:

  • the decomposition of time-lapse seismic images for pressure and saturation changes in the reservoir;
  • accurate simulator to seismic modelling, and;
  • imaging reservoir pressure from overburden strain; and,
  • direct 4D seismic interpretation for reservoir model update.

Seismic Reservoir Characterisation Project

Here, the objective is to pursue refined 3D seismic interpretation solutions for reservoir development.

Theme lead: Prof Colin MacBeth.

Uncertainty Quantification

The Uncertainty Quantification Group carries out research in calibrating models to data and forecasting uncertainty in production of oil and gas. The group has attracted significant levels of funding from EPSRC and international oil companies for fundamental and applied research.

The main advances have been:

  1. application of novel stochastic sampling techniques to calibrate models to data;
  2. development (EPSRC funded) of solution error modelling techniques to improve accuracy of low resolution computer models; and
  3. uncertain forecasting on real field examples.

The solution error modelling is extremely novel (only two other groups worldwide carry out similar research) and demonstrates that correction for bias in coarse models is possible in many cases.

Theme lead: Prof. Mike Christie.