14 July 2016

What do Roman ceramics, earthquakes, catalysts and Matisse’s yellow have in common? Four young researchers explain their involvement in Future Energy & Resources

Florian Meirer, Amir Raoof, Marijn van Huis and Oliver Plümper

A team of young researchers from all walks of natural sciences are looking for sustainable solutions to meet the global demand for energy and resources. Three members of the team, Oliver PlümperMarijn van Huis and Florian Meirer, conduct experiments with electron and X-ray microscopy. The fourth member Amir Raoof is a computationalist, specialized in modelling and calculations. Together, the researchers are trying to find breakthroughs in science. But what does this have to do with Roman ceramics, earth quake zones and even the paintings of Henri Matisse? The four researchers explain.

“Whatever is solid, is porous,” Amir states, Assistant Professor in Hydrogeology and Geochemistry. “This is the key concept that all four of us are working with: the porosity of solids and how substances are transported through these materials. We’re talking about a variety of different materials here: natural ones, like rocks, soils, and woods, but also industrial and biological ones like fuel cells, catalysts, or human brain tissues. We believe that, for all these various materials with different inherent problems, there are similar solutions.”

Oliver Plümper, Assistant Professor for Structural Geology, adds: “We all have very different scientific backgrounds and skills. However, when the four of us started talking to each other, we quickly concluded that we could use each other’s expertise in our own research fields.”

Shale gas, oil fields, and catalysts

The group is looking at topics such as transitional energy sources, like shale gas, that are needed for the transition to fully sustainable energy (solar, wind, and water). In order to find out the underlying processes and how the gas could be extracted more efficiently, the team model the extremely small pores within the rock, to unravel what path gas and fluids find to move through the material. “This is important,” says Amir, “because we humans are going to be utilizing these transitional energy sources in the future. We have to learn how they can be used in the safest and best possible way.

“Oil companies take a great interest in investigating reservoir rocks and their physical and chemical characteristics,” adds Marijn van Huis, Assistant Professor for Soft Condensed Matter Physics.  “Obviously, they want to know the most effective way of extracting and refining oil. By understanding the chemical processes that happen in both reservoir rocks and catalysts that are used to refine oil, we try to improve the harvesting of oil fields as well as the conversion of oil into fuel, thereby saving energy and natural resources. Instead of taking the oil out and refining it on the surface, you could actually do the refining already underground.”

Earthquake zones

Another topic the group are collaborating on is the nanophysics related to the stability of earthquake prone regions. “Nanoparticles seem to be important in these regions,” explains Oliver. “We cannot predict earthquakes, but we can try to understand how these nanoparticles behave and control tectonically active rock zones from which earthquakes nucleate.” Oliver closely collaborates with André Niemeijer on this topic. They recently employed a PhD candidate, who is going to co-operate with Marijn in their advanced electron microscopy facility.

Storing greenhouse gases

The research of the four could also lead to a solution for the storage of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas. “Right now, the plan is to simply pump carbon dioxide into empty gas fields, like in Barendrecht or Groningen,” says Marijn. “But the issue is that CO2 can have a chemical reaction with the rock. If you want to create a greener energy economy, you can only do it sustainably and without risking major damage by understanding the processes and being aware of the responses of your actions to the environment.”

In the last couple of years, Amir has developed a comprehensive computational package called PoreFlow, which models how pores of rocks behave and change after carbon dioxide is injected into reservoirs.

Very thin porous media

Apart from these major issues in the field of transitional energy, the team are also pooling its expertise to examine several applications of thin porous solids. Solids with very low thickness are for example: fuel cells, batteries, filters and printing papers.

“The way that the printing ink penetrates into paper occurs via similar processes as fluid pouring through catalysts,” explains Amir. “One of our PhD candidates is now trying to reconstruct the pore structures inside paper with a state of the art electron microscope. If we can control ink penetration into paper, we would use less ink and improve printing techniques.” The team also explore the development of more efficient fuel cells as a cleaner and more reliable source of electric power.

Roman ceramics and Henri Matisse’s yellow

“But,” says Florian Meirer, Assistant Professor for Inorganic Chemistry and Catalysis, “we’re not only working on the hot topic of sustainability. We also conduct research on exotic things like why the yellow in Henri Matisse’s paintings is fading. One reason for the alteration of these paintings is a diffusion process; the yellow paint becomes colorless and can diffuse through the pores of the paint layers. I also look into Roman ceramics and try to understand how the ancient potters fired them to give them their specific color. All of these things have to do with mass transport in porous materials. By understanding the fundamentals of it, we can apply our knowledge to a lot of things. Sometimes, we discuss really crazy scientific ideas.”

River and Facebook patterns

“At my previous university in Norway,” says Oliver, “we used to study networks of fracture patterns in rocks. Then, my colleagues started looking into other networks, including virtual ones. It turns out that you can apply exactly the same mathematical descriptions to e-mail and social networks. Just like a river finds the best way to flow to the sea, people want to be connected to their friends in the most efficient way. It’s the same mathematics. That is very spectacular.”

Gender

According to Oliver, the only thing the focus area FER needs for a bright future is time and manpower. “And contribution of women,” adds Amir, “because our field is dominated by men. Our platform already consists of different nationalities - Austrian, German, Dutch, Iranian, French, English, Chinese – and different scientific disciplines, but a variety in gender is just as important for achieving the best results.”

“We’re not saying that it’s exceptional what we do,” he concludes. “Many people at different faculties and departments deal with these same problems. But what we are trying to say is: these are different problems, but with similar solutions. The models that I build, can be used to help people in other research. Our interests may be different, but our methods can be shared.”