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Professor Mercedes Maroto-Valer, holder of the Robert M Buchan Chair in Sustainable Energy Engineering at Heriot-Watt, has received a prestigious European Research Council Advanced Award to pursue frontier research.  Her team will grow ‘smart rocks’ which can ‘talk’ to them about what actually goes on deep underground.

Flag of the European UnionThe €3 million award was 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.

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.

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 rocks that can.

3D printing porous rocks

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.

We are very excited about this award and the opportunity to bring interdisciplinary innovation building upon Heriot-Watt’s 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.
Professor Maroto-Valer

Interdisciplinary innovation

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’s 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 gases 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."

This project has received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (grant agreement No 695070).