Director's Corner

Release Date: April 07, 2016

The Art of Observation

An image obtained from NETL’s high-resolution micro-CT scanner, showing connected pore space (green) in the core sample

In fossil energy, many things happen that can’t be seen, either beneath the earth’s surface where natural gas, oil, and coal await extraction or in carbon storage processes that place carbon dioxide (CO2) in underground storage reservoirs. Human observers cannot enter these environments to monitor or supervise storage or recovery efforts, so how can we be sure what we think is happening below the surface actually is?

Extending our powers of observation has been a critical priority to science and research since the beginning, when the only tools available to the “natural philosophers” of Antiquity, the astronomers of ancient India, or the surveyors of ancient Egypt, were their five senses. The science of observation has been advanced with technology and new tools. At the National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL), we have many innovations focused on the art of observation.

One example is our Center for Advanced Imaging and Characterization, which hosts a suite of computed tomography (CT) scanners used by researchers to investigate processes relevant to energy applications that don’t allow a first-person view. Enhanced oil recovery, carbon storage, geothermal energy production, hydrate formation, and shale gas development are a few examples. The CT scanners provide 3-D images at varying resolutions—from the medical scanner to the micro scanner—providing information about mineral composition and the internal structure of rock cores. With this equipment, researchers are also able to analyze properties, such as porosity, that influence fluid flow and can’t otherwise be observed.

Research conducted in the Center for Advanced Imaging and Characterization helps our scientists learn what happens to geologic materials as a result of carbon storage, how fluids move through fractured shale, and how foamed cement forms when it’s injected into an offshore wellbore. NETL’s CT scanners let researchers see how fluids migrate through various rock materials at CO2 storage reservoir conditions, analyze a sample’s pore and fracture network at in situ pressure and temperature conditions, and watch long-term chemical and morphological changes that might occur during CO2 storage or hydraulic fracturing operations. With its ability to scan through solid rock, the laboratory reveals information on the micro-scale that can have big impacts in large-scale energy applications.

Using CT scanners for petrographic and core-evaluation work has another advantage. Usually, this type of analysis requires researchers to physically cut the core to examine details about the sample’s internal composition. As a result, the samples, which are difficult and expensive to obtain, are destroyed. The CT scanners are non-destructive, allowing researchers to perform a multitude of tests on a single sample. In the long-term, researchers hope to enable safer, better extraction techniques. In the short-term, the information they glean from the CT scanning laboratory helps build better modeling and simulation tools—another technology that enables researchers to visualize what they can’t see with the naked eye.

The Center for Advanced Imaging and Characterization, along with its CT scanners, is just one example of the many technologies NETL researchers use to extend their powers of observation beyond the five senses. I hope this example illustrates NETL’s dedication to thoroughly investigating the crucial details of fossil energy technologies—from the pore spaces in shale to the efficient operation of entire power plants. I invite you to check out our many research projects, such as our subsurface monitoring research, our sensors and controls program, and simulation and modeling tools, that equip researchers with the gift of scientific sight.

As Acting Director of NETL, Sean I. Plasynski, Ph.D., builds on an extensive background in energy as he leads NETL in its mission to enhance the nation’s energy independence and protect the environment for future generations. For more information about Sean Plasynski's experience, please click here.