7 September 2015

“We solve challenges – for industry as well”

- Susan Stipp, of the University of Copenhagen’s Nano-Science Center, a part of the Department of Chemistry at UCPH’s Faculty of Science – as told to SCIENCE Communication.

Professor Susan Stipp

Professor Susan Stipp

Basic research is our focus, because there is so much to learn from nature, and we want to use our newfound knowledge to solve societal challenges.

We encounter lots of interest from companies in Denmark and abroad. The first thing we always ask them is: “What are your greatest challenges?”

When we have identified their problem, we sit down with them to find out how we can work together in a shared research project that takes the interests of both parties into account. In other words, a project where we develop new solutions for companies, while engaging in ground-breaking basic research of our own.

It is a win-win because industry receives the new and crucial answers to provide them with a competitive edge, while we gain the chance to publish our results in international scientific journals.

We specialise in the interactions between solid substances and fluids in nature. We work with challenges confronted by society, such as clean drinking water, the decontamination of soil and ground water, CO2 storage, how organisms produce biominerals such as bone and shell, and how oil production from reservoirs can be increased.

More North Sea oil, by way of nanotechnology

One of our projects, P3 (P cubed), is supported by Mærsk Oil and Gas, and Innovation Fund Denmark. Currently, the oil industry is only able to extract about 30 per cent of oil found in oil reservoirs, including those found in the Danish sector of the North Sea. The remaining oil is underground. That is because between 60-80 per cent of it can’t be recovered using current production technologies.

However, Denmark will continue to be reliant on oil as an energy source for the next 20 years. Furthermore, taxes from the oil industry make a sizeable contribution towards the funding of the Danish welfare system. If we fail to produce oil in the Danish sector of the North Sea, we lose jobs, tax revenue and we will be dependant on oil from other countries.

Therefore, the Danish oil industry is keenly interested in how to coax more oil from existing fields, such as those in the North Sea. It makes more sense to produce oil from existing oil fields, where the infrastructure – platforms, drills, etc. – is already in place, as opposed to opening up entirely new areas.

Venturing to the Arctic or Middle East to access oil involves an altogether different sort of investment, other laws and terms, and increased environmental risks. Thus, it makes great sense – for industry and Denmark – to extract more oil from the North Sea while we can. Until a full transition to renewable energy sources is made, we would like to help the oil industry extract as much oil from existing reservoirs as possible – in a way that is environmentally sound.

From a mining town to a metropolis

In this sense, the project draws from my experiences in the Northern Canadian mining industry, where I saw how much mining and oil production could destroy nature. I decided to find a way to do things that could protect nature, while also getting a hold of the raw materials needed by society, in a responsible manner.

This lead to my becoming the first in the world within an entirely new field of research: the surface analysis of natural materials and how these surfaces react with fluids and gas. We analysed natural materials such as chalk, soil, minerals, water, oil, oxygen and CO2 at the molecular level.

After having studied at the University of Waterloo in Canada, Stanford and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne, I came to the University of Copenhagen in 1995 and began putting together a research group within the field. Today, there are roughly 60 of us, all of whom – except for myself – are paid from external funding generated from industry, EU grants and research foundations.

In relation to the P3 Project, we have partnered with Mærsk Olie to develop a method to predict the behaviour of fluid substances in the pores of chalk - to understand their flow properties, their ability to pass through stone.

We do this with the help of CT-scanning at the nanometric scale. One might think of stone as massive and impermeable, but it isn’t. Stone, such as chalk, is up to 40-50 per cent full of tiny cavities or pores, in which a whole lot of oil, water, CO2 or any other type of fluid can be contained.

So, how does fluid move through porous stone?  The answer is an important one if you want to get a hold of the oil remaining in chalk reservoirs, something that cannot be accomplished using current technologies. With the knowledge that we are after, we will be able to determine if it is worth going after oil in some of those marginal oil fields, and thereafter calculate how much pressure and water would be required to do so.

The idea is to supply the company with the knowledge required so that they can judge how much oil is left in reservoirs, and if it is economically viable to go after it. During the 70’s and 80’s, Mærsk Oil left a portion of their oil formations because at the time, it was not economically viable or too difficult to produce oil from them. Our new method may allow Mærsk Oil to access a large amount of oil from previously abandoned formations.

Among other things, the project involves creating 3D imagery of the small chalk particles that constitute the oil fields and the use of nano-scale CT scanning. Using these scans, we will also be able to help the oil industry determine where and how the oil is attached to the chalk.

Another objective is to use this knowledge to develop new ways of extracting the oil, known as “enhanced oil recovery”. Project results may then be adopted for other purposes, such as decontaminating polluted soil or water – the topic of one of our most recent projects.

Recipe for more partnerships between researchers and companies

We are extremely pleased that our basic research is serving industry and thereby, society as well. However, there are researchers who don’t see the advantage of working on solutions for industry. This is something that I get frustrated by. Researchers have the right to choose their own research projects and that is fine, but it is a shame if they miss out on opportunities, simply because they don’t know how to come into contact with companies. It is really fun to solve practical problems by way of cutting edge basic research, and students love to work on things that “can be used for something”.

If one wants to work with industry, it is important to listen to what they say. One can’t show up and say: “We have an idea for a research project – will you pay?” A better approach is to say: “We are strong in these areas, and we would like to help you. What are your greatest challenges?” It could be Mærsk Oil coming back and saying, “We left a large amount of oil underground because we were simply unable to produce it.” When we as researchers know that, we can organise a research partnership that is able to solve the company’s problem through basic research. For us, that’s fun.