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Western Australia: a time and place for collaborative research hubs

Hydrocarbon Engineering,

Continuing to provide the world with increasing amounts of energy in an emissions-constrained global environment is an ongoing challenge for the petroleum industry. The most recent figures from the International Energy Agency (IEA) suggest that carbon capture and storage is one of a number of technology options that could significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions (Figure 1). Carbon storage activities have strong synergies with oil and gas technologies, processes, environments and capabilities.

Figure 1. Methods for reducing emissions and their contribution to keeping climate change below 2°C.

Perth’s physical isolation from the eastern states, as well as the 3 hr time difference, lends itself to the development of a range of collaborative research and academic hubs. For instance, partners of the Western Australian Energy Research Alliance (WA:ERA), such as CSIRO, the University of Western Australia and Curtin University, have collaborated for over 13 years with the petroleum industry. The relationships and experience gained over the years have provided a significant springboard for the extension of carbon storage research in support of emissions reduction in the oil and gas sector.

This has resulted in another research hub in the form of the National Geosequestration Laboratory (NGL). The NGL is another partnership between CSIRO, the University of Western Australia and Curtin University, establishment of which came about when WA:ERA was approached by the Western Australian Department of Mines and Petroleum (WA DMP) in an Australian Federal Government Carbon Capture and Storage Flagship programme. NGL partners had been building capacity and capability in carbon storage research for a number of years with the Cooperative Research Centre for Greenhouse Gas Technologies (CO2CRC) through their research site at Otway in Victoria, Australia. NGL partners were able to identify gaps in equipment and facilities, which could accelerate site characterisation for commercial scale carbon capture and storage (CCS) projects. WA DMP is in the early phases of data gathering for the South West Hub CCS project to establish whether the site might have sufficient storage capacity, containment security and injectivity to allow for commercial scale storage of CO2 in an area approximately 100km south of Perth. The outcome is a carbon storage one-stop-shop facility that can be used to evaluate storage sites in both Australia and overseas.

The South West Hub project is in the pre-feasibility stage, in which a series of steps have been taken to acquire new data and information on the geology of the region to define the potential storage site. The town of Collie, which is approximately 60 km to the east of the study area, is the source of much of the CO2 that is anticipated to be captured from coal-fired power plants and other industrial processes, such as coal-to-urea manufacture. A series of wells have been drilled to acquire essential new geological data, complemented by a series of seismic data acquisition activities through the region. Researchers are using the data and rock samples recovered to put together a 3D image of the subsurface geology to help reduce risk and uncertainty in the models generated to define the storage interval. NGL is providing much of the data acquisition, analysis and expertise to develop the project in collaboration with WA DMP.

The key challenge ahead is how CCS can be used to capture and store industrial emissions at a large scale that is safe and commercially viable. The NGL facility has been created to house a variety of equipment dedicated to address these issues by supporting carbon storage research, development and deployment on a commercial scale. The majority of the NGL equipment is co-located at the three partner institutions and has application to the oil and gas sector, unconventional hydrocarbon exploration and production, as well as mineral and water resources.

Case studies

Chemical tracers

Chemical tracers have been used extensively by NGL staff in field deployment at the CO2CRC Otway Project and in research for other organisations. Tracers aid the understanding of how connected systems are with respect to the migration and dispersion of CO2 in the subsurface. Injecting tracers in oil and gas fields is a practice also used in the oil and gas sector to better understand how hydrocarbon fields might be connected.

Figure 2. Slim-tube apparatus for measuring tracer breakthrough curves and evaluating losses on different mineral surfaces.

Virtually no data is available on the measurements of how much of a chemical tracer may partition (also known as partition coefficients) into the supercritical CO2 phase and how much stays in the formation water phase at reservoir temperature and pressure during CO2 injection. Therefore, NGL has designed and modified its batch reactor apparatus for the direct measurement of partitioning coefficients to improve understanding of tracer behaviour.

Advanced steel and alloys are used on all CO2 wetted parts to be more resistant to corrosion. The laboratory also uses a slim-tube flow cell to measure and monitor the behaviour of chemical tracers on different rocks and mineral surfaces (Figure 2). This enables investigation of how much tracer might be lost or stuck to mineral surfaces or organics during migration of CO2 through different rock types in the subsurface.

The new facility is part of a strategy to evaluate chemical tracers for use in CCS and other purposes, such as monitoring groundwater, natural gas or oil for enhanced recovery. Integrating laboratory data with analysis from field deployment is part of an overall workflow for testing chemical tracers in which numerical modelling plays a significant role.

Research, training and calibration well

As a part of the NGL’s research and education program, a 900 m calibration and training well has been drilled at the Curtin University campus. The well is completed with fibreglass casing to allow both conventional methods of wire line logging, as well as electromagnetic methods, to be deployed without interference. Plastic screens allow direct contact with the rock surface and fluids in the formation.

Figure 3. NGL Seismic Truck - low footprint, narrow and light-weight for a range of deployment scenarios (Image A. Ross).

The facility provides unprecedented access to a well in an urban location, allowing researchers to calibrate equipment before being deployed to remote settings or in expensively completed commercial wells. New tools and methods for logging are also being trialled, compared and evaluated against results from conventional equipment.

As a training facility, the well provides hands-on experience to geoscience, geophysics and engineering students so that they are well prepared for the transition into industry. An adjacent storage facility houses various survey equipment, such as geophones and sensors, a logging truck and the NGL’s two small-footprint seismic trucks, which can also be used during testing at the well (Figure 3). These trucks can also be deployed in field environments where it may be important to minimise ground disturbance or limit impact to agricultural activities.

CO2 research laboratory

The NGL CO2 Research Laboratory at The University of Western Australia is a purpose built facility to house the following:

  • CO2 processing equipment.
  • Near-surface seismic equipment.
  • A fluidised bed reactor and geo-reactors.
  • Teaching spaces and facilities for students and graduate researchers.

Geo-reactors are pressure vessels designed to conduct high temperature, high pressure experiments to evaluate the impact of supercritical CO2 on different rock and mineral types at varying temperatures over time. The artificially accelerated aging of rocks can be used to evaluate the long-term effects of CO2 on seals above the storage interval, which cannot be determined in the field under normal timescales. Storage sites are expected to contain CO2 for over 1000 years.

Figure 4. Near-surface seismic equipment being set up for a field trial.

Near-surface geophysical monitoring equipment is stored onsite to allow testing and training before deployment (Figure 4). It includes mobile survey equipment and passive seismic equipment used for monitoring near-surface environments. At the South West Hub site, passive seismic arrays are being deployed to observe natural seismicity or noise that occurs in the region to act as baseline information before any injection commences.

Building capacity

One of the main objectives of NGL is to build capacity through supporting new students and researchers to develop additional skills and apply new techniques and technology to the CCS space. Many of the tools and facilities used to evaluate a CO2 storage site are the same or similar to equipment used in the oil and gas industry. However, there is often a high degree of cross-collaboration of different disciplinary areas required to establish methods to evaluate potential storage sites. Handling of CO2 during testing also adds to the challenge of operating conventional equipment.

Figure 5. Minister Marmion welcomes the 30 international students to the IEAGHG CCS Summer School in December 2015 at UWA.

Knowledge sharing between researchers and industry from different pilot, demonstration and commercial scale CCS projects accelerates understanding and capacity building. Strengthening networks in these areas can be tough in a remote setting, such as WA, but it has been a popular location to host meetings to exchange information and invite researchers on secondment.

In late 2015, NGL and the Australian CCS Research Community hosted the IEAGHG CCS Summer School for 2015, where 30 students from 15 countries came together for a week long learning experience at the University of Western Australia. Speakers and mentors from around the world gave presentations on a range of topics from CO2 capture, transport, storage, monitoring and verification, public engagement and acceptance and economics to provide an overview of the industry. Opened by Minister Marmion (State Minister for Mines and Petroleum; Figure 5) he set the scene for the importance of CCS in WA for the future of the state.

Investment in such a broad range of equipment and facilities can create significant step-change in research and development, not only in the targeted area of CCS research, but also in other energy related activities and applications. The facilities can be accessed by industry and research organisations to evaluate new methods and approaches, test new tools and techniques and be able to conduct lab and field scale activities supported by such a broad range of equipment.

Written by Linda Stalker

Edited by David Rowlands

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