Public Release: 

Hundred-year-old law on fluid flow overturned by Imperial research

Engineers from Imperial College London have dispelled a 100-year-old scientific law used to describe how fluid flows through rocks

Imperial College London

Engineers from Imperial College London have dispelled a 100-year-old scientific law used to describe how fluid flows through rocks.

The discovery by researchers from Imperial could lead to a range of improvements including advances in Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS). This is where industrial emissions will be captured by CCS technology, before reaching the atmosphere, and safely stored in rock deep underground.

Miles below the surface of the Earth different types of fluids are flowing through the microscopic spaces between the grains inside rocks.

Scientists from the College have used the Diamond Light Source facility in the UK to make 3D videos that show in more detail than ever before how fluids move through rock.

For over one hundred years, engineers have been modelling how multiple fluids flow through rocks for a range of reasons. For example, modelling fluid flow enables engineers to determine how to extract oil and gas. Understanding how seawater flows through rocks provides insights into the volatility of Earth's crust, and predicting how fresh water flows through rocks enables engineers to manage water resources. More recently, engineers have been modelling how CO? flows through rock as part of CCS.

Previously, scientists have used a formula for modelling how fluids move through rocks. It's called Darcy's Extended Law and the premise of it is that gases move through rock via their own separate, stable, complex, microscopic pathways. This has been the underpinning approach used by engineers to model fluid flow for the last 100 years.

However, the Imperial scientists have discovered that rather than flowing in a relatively stable pattern through rocks, the flows are in fact very unstable. The pathways that fluids flow through actually only last for a short period of time, tens of seconds at most, before re-arranging and forming into different ones. The team have called this process dynamic connectivity.

The importance of the discovery of dynamic connectivity is that engineers around the world will now be able to more accurately model how fluids flow through rock.

Dr Catriona Reynolds, lead author on the study who completed her PhD in the Department of Earth Science and Engineering at Imperial, said: "Trying to model how fluids flow through rock at large scales has proven to be a major scientific and engineering challenge. Our ability to predict how these fluids flow in the subsurface is not much better than it was 50 years ago despite major advances in computer modelling technology. Engineers have long suspected that there were some major gaps in our understanding of the underlying physics of fluid flow. Our new observations in this study will force engineers to re-evaluate their modelling techniques, increasing their accuracy."

To create the 3D images the researchers in today's study used the synchrotron particle accelerator at the Diamond Light Source. The synchrotron enables the researchers to take 3D image at speeds much faster than a conventional laboratory X-ray instrument - around 45 seconds compared to hours for a laboratory based instrument. This enabled them to see the dynamics, which had not been previously observed before.

However, an even higher time resolution would significantly enhance the observations. These fluid pathways re-arrange themselves quickly, so ideally the team would like the observations to capture every 100th of a second. This time resolution is only possible right now using optical light from microscopes combined with high-speed cameras. However, they are limited in their ability to observe fluids moving through real rocks.

The next steps will see the team attempting to overcome this technological obstacle using a combination of novel optical and X-ray imaging techniques. This could enable them to model fluid flow on a large scale, which would be of use for modelling CO2 storage, the production of oil and gas, and the migration of fluids deep in the Earth's crust.

The research is published today in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and funded by Engineering and Physical Science Research Council's Doctoral Training Scholarship Scheme and supported by the Qatar Carbonates and Carbon Storage Research Centre, funded jointly by Qatar Petroleum, Shell and the Qatar Science and Technology Park.

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For further information please contact:

Colin Smith
Communications Manager (Engineering)
Communications and Public Affairs
Imperial College London
South Kensington Campus
London SW7 2AZ
Tel: +44 (0)7872 850 002
Email: cd.smith@imperial.ac.uk
Duty press officer mobile: +44 (0)7803 886248

Notes to editors:

"Dynamic connectivity - A new steady-state pore-scale flow mechanism", published on 17 July 2017 in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Catriona Reynoldsa,b,1, Hannah Menkea,b, Matthew Andrewc, Martin J. Blunta,b, and Samuel Krevora, b
[A]Department of Earth Science and Engineering, Imperial College London, SW7 2AZ, UK;
[B] Qatar Carbonates and Carbon Storage Research Centre, Imperial College London, SW7 2AZ, UK; [C] Carl Zeiss X-ray Microscopy Ltd, 4385 Hopyard Rd #100, Pleasanton, CA 94588, USA

2. About Imperial College London

Imperial College London is one of the world's leading universities. The College's 16,000 students and 8,000 staff are expanding the frontiers of knowledge in science, medicine, engineering and business, and translating their discoveries into benefits for society.

Founded in 1907, Imperial builds on a distinguished past - having pioneered penicillin, holography and fibre optics - to shape the future. Imperial researchers work across disciplines to improve health and wellbeing, understand the natural world, engineer novel solutions and lead the data revolution. This blend of academic excellence and its real-world application feeds into Imperial's exceptional learning environment, where students participate in research to push the limits of their degrees.

Imperial collaborates widely to achieve greater impact. It works with the NHS to improve healthcare in west London, is a leading partner in research and education within the European Union, and is the UK's number one research collaborator with China.

Imperial has nine London campuses, including its White City Campus: a research and innovation centre that is in its initial stages of development in west London. At White City, researchers, businesses and higher education partners will co-locate to create value from ideas on a global scale.

http://www.imperial.ac.uk

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