A sunny secondment: My visit to Australia’s National Geosequestration Lab

The UKCCSRC Early Career Researcher (ECR) International Exchange Fund allowed me to escape the Scottish winter and travel 9,156 miles to Perth, Western Australia, to undertake some exciting research with Dr Linda Stalker, Science Director of the National Geosequestration Laboratory (NGL) and her team. From mid-November 2015 to mid-February 2016 I was based at NGL, which is nested amongst part of the CSIRO Energy Team, in the Australian Resources Research Centre (ARRC), Perth.

 looking over the Swan River at sundown

I found the experience incredibly rewarding on a number of levels, both professionally and personally. I cannot possibly communicate all that richness of experience in this blog post, but I can at least outline the aims of the research visit, and the principal activities that it entailed. This blog post also allows a place to voice my thanks to the many bodies - individuals and organisations - that facilitated this valuable learning and development experience. You will find the following account is peppered with little things that might explain why I found the whole experience so refreshing, but this is addressed more specifically in a sister blog post, A change is as good as a holiday.

Who was I there to work with and why?

The visit allowed me to work with Dr Linda Stalker, Dr Matt Myers, and to meet with their colleagues and collaborators in the CSIRO Energy Team and the South West Hub project (led by the Western Australian Department of Mines and Petroleum).

I had been in contact with Linda for a number of years - in fact, since I worked on the UKCCSRC Call 2 funded project at the University of Edinburgh. Part of that research focussed on understanding chemical tracer behaviour during CO₂ ascent and release to seabed in the case of leaks from offshore CO₂ stores. Linda had provided feedback on what the next phase of research might look like, in particular from her perspective of tracer research in a range of different contexts which Linda and Matt have a great deal of experience. Another ongoing stream of my research regards the surface characteristics of CO2 seeps, and the legislation around CO₂ leakage and leak detection. At CSIRO there are teams focused on monitoring both CO2 and hydrocarbon seeps, their signatures, and the use of chemical sensors to understand these systems. So, the idea for this visit initiated from our wish to knowledge-share to wrap up a couple of research publications and bounce around ideas for future research together (informed by a better understanding of what NGL can offer). We recognized that a visit would also allow me to more broadly soak up some of the knowledge and experience within ARRC, and expose me to the CCS and broader research community in Australia - which is very active and is ever welcome to international collaboration.

What did I get up to?

Well, I was certainly very busy during my stay! Initially, the ECR Travel Funding award was to support a 6-week research visit. However, in the ~9 months between writing the funding proposal and my visit a number of additional opportunities had cropped up, including the IEAGHG Summer School, some field work, and scope for some bench experiments. In that time, the British pound had also strengthened against the Aussie dollar, and so with a bit of clever budgeting, Linda, Matt and I designed a 10 week visit, which allowed a little more time to focus on the research and publications. I also had a healthy chunk of time off over the festive break, and so in actual fact, when I flew out of Perth on the 20th Feb, I had only a couple of hours left on my 3-month travel visa…I certainly made the most of being down-under!

Schematic timeline of my activities during my UKCCSRC-funded travel to Australia. 

The main activities during my trip are shown in the schematic timeline, and summarised as follows:

Weeks 1-2: Getting things rolling
Time to orientate myself, get inductions and meet the team at CSIRO, prepare materials for the weeks ahead - oh, and to master the jet lag. My reception was a breeze; I had a desk, computer, staff-pass, network access, etc. all within the first day. ARRC are clearly used to accommodating visitors. This fabulous efficiency meant that I was getting on with the research on my second day.

I also had chance to familiarise myself with the facilities at NGL/ARRC. The amount of geo-geekery-techy-kit under one roof is incredible (though there was a bee’s nest in one of the portable labs, so it might be fire-proof but not insect proof!). The NGL website gives a bit of information on the gear and you can always contact Linda directly for more information. The research currently underway is just ace, and there are many opportunities for international collaboration using these labs. Take note, y’all.

“I am definitely in Australia” moments:

Week 1: A meeting with Dr Tom Houghton, We met at a beach side restaurant, and chatted about our respective research into the social impacts of energy developments with a backdrop of kite-surfers on the ocean at sunset. The setting doesn't get much more Aussie.
Week 2: Receiving an alert from H&S at ARRC, advising cyclists to take extra care around the bike-sheds; a large brown snake was hanging around.

My desk at CSIRO         

Week 3: IEAGHG CCS Summer School

The 2015 IEAGHG Summer School was hosted by the Australian CCS Community, and held in the picturesque grounds of the University of Western Australia. Linda was the local host for this event working with John Kaldi from University of Adelaide and CO2CRC. I was invited to join the programme to speak about the current state of the art regarding environmental impacts of CCS, and also join the team of Expert Mentors whose role was to support the students throughout the week.

It really was an international summer school; the 30 students came from organisations (postgraduate or industry) in 14 different countries (Australia, Canada, China, Czech Republic, Germany, Italy, Mexico, Norway, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, UK, USA) and there were many more nationalities in the group. It was a fantastic week, which included a visit to the Harvey-4 well at the South West Hub CCS Project, and a Q&A with Chevron geologists working on the Gorgon Project. One of the mentors was from the Shell Quest Project too.
You can read about the Summer School activities in the excellent summary blog that was collectively written by UKCCSRC-supported delegates in the network. For me, it was an absolute privilege and a pleasure to spend so much time with a number of international experts in the field of CCS, and the students - the next generation of experts. A couple of us had fun Twitter-blogging the events also (#IEAGHGSchool2015).

“I am definitely in Australia” moment: there were many occasions when the summer school students could experience a bit of that Western Australia feeling. However, for me, the reminder that I was far away from home came when Tim Dixon (IEAGHG) and I realised that a raucous flock of rainbow parakeets were responsible for the absolute racket outside the seminar room.

Telling the Summer School students about the range of potential environmental impacts of CCS         

Week 4: Field work over East.
The morning after the closing event of the Summer School (complete with champagne at sundown over the river) I caught the early morning flight to Melbourne where I was to join Ruta Karolyte from the University of Edinburgh on her fieldwork in Daylesford, Victoria. Having completed the geochemical sampling work, Ruta’s next step was to examine the style of the seeps, and how they might relate with geological structures of the region. This links in to my research skills and interests, and so I arrived and the geochemists (Dr Stuart Gilfillan and Dr Sascha Serno) departed.  The field area was really interesting, and incredibly well-mapped due to the gold deposits in the area and also the thermal springs which have been historically important for tourism. This meant that useful exposures were quite easily located, so, compared to ‘usual’ fieldwork, much less time was spent umming and ahhing about where the rocks were!

 

Movie of CO2 bubbles rising through a spring in the Daylesford region, Australia

“I am definitely in Australia” moment: besides all the ‘roos… I would say that I felt definitely down-under when Stuart and Sacha were talking about the strange ‘monkey-bird’ that kicked off in the trees outside their bedroom window at dawn (and that Ruta and I so slept through with expert skill). That noise, chaps, was a kookaburra’s laughter.

Christmas Break!
Or, in Aus-tongue, ‘Chrisso / Hollo’s’. A lovely long holiday in a clapped out campervan, tramping around various parts of Western Australia’s wilderness (towards the cooler south).

“I am definitely in Australia” moment: Err. Many. How about applying SPF50 on Christmas Day. Makes a change from a woolly jumper with a festive knit.

Weeks 5 to week 10: Unabated research
This period allowed me to really get my teeth into the research that we wanted to complete during my visit, and so it was head-down. Linda and Matt have a lot of knowledge and experience about tracers which was invaluable for shaping my work, in particular the many practical aspects of working with tracers that you wouldn't find in the published literature! Matt set about setting up some experiments that we had designed to investigate tracer loss during CO₂ bubble ascent from seabed sediments. I set about synthesising what had learnt about CO₂ leak rates from observations of natural systems, modelling, and CO₂ release experiments, and also about quantifying CO₂ leak rates. Matt will continue with the experiments over the next couple of months, and I will wrap up the research papers that I started towards the end of the visit. Interested in the results? Watch this space...

It is important to remember also that being ‘head down’ also means being conducive to conversation! I was nested within CSIROs Energy Team, and during my visit many interesting and informative conversations and phone calls were had around the coffee machine, at the lunch benches, or serendipitously via the brilliant open-plan office design. Small gems of insight soon accumulate in these settings.

In addition, I was welcome to join in with CSIRO Energy Team seminars that, via teleconferencing, involve the whole CSIRO Energy Team, Australia-wide. Andy Ross’s seminar about a recent research cruise to the on the Investigator, a brand new research vessel (that I had, incidentally, noticed leaving Fremantle Harbour a couple of months earlier) really shed light on how much there is still to explore in the environments around Australia. And also, again, showcased some of the incredible research resources at CSIRO. This short movie of the cruise will have you equally rapt.

“I am definitely in Australia” moment: being evacuated from work because there was a bushfire at the rear of the building.

Throughout all this there was quite a healthy amount of marking coursework and exam scripts for a couple of undergraduate courses that I contribute to at the University of Strathclyde. These activities are surprisingly painless when you are sat out on a deck in the early morning or early evening sunlight, to the tune of cicadas, honey-eaters, and cockatoos and fuelled by an ice cold beverage of choice and some extraordinarily tasty seasonal fruit. I would advocate sending lecturers on ‘marking retreats’ of a similar ilk.

The weeks flew by. You can imagine how these activities, and working amongst the Energy team at CSIRO brought all-round benefits; improving my knowledge about many elements of CCS, chemical tracers, CO₂ injection experiments, CO2 springs, Australia’s wildlife and heritage, what to do in a bush fire, etc[1].

Linda, Matt and me outside the ARRC building.

What are the benefits of these trips?

As I said at the start of this blog, I found the whole experience of this international placement thing incredibly refreshing. I was not anticipating this. I thought I was going to go and do some cool research, meet some great people, and see some interesting natural environments. In actual fact it was all of these things, and a thousand more. I really like Glasgow, I have established a very wonderful life there, I enjoy my job, and enjoy working with colleagues at Strathclyde, ClimateXChange and beyond. So, why is it then that a mid-term research trip like this was so incredibly good? I know, from speaking with colleagues, that I am not alone in finding these experiences have surprisingly high returns, and so I have written a separate blog on this very topic, called A change is as good as a holiday, if you are particularly interested.

 

Who supported my visit?

I am extremely grateful to a number of ‘bodies’ - individuals and organisations - that made my time down-under what it was. These include:

  • UKCCSRC firstly for providing such opportunities for ECRs and secondly for awarding this opportunity to me!
  • The National Sequestration Labs and partners for accommodating my visit so smoothly, and to colleagues there for making my time there so enjoyable. Particular thanks to Linda for being such an ace host, as well as being as sharp as a very sharp thing (and with a wit to match).
  • To the organisers of the IEAGHG Summer School for inviting me to be involved, and to my comrades and the students on the Summer School for being such excellent and interesting company. During that week I met some wonderful people, learnt a great deal, and ate a lot of superb cheese (with superb beverage accompaniments).
  • The Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Strathclyde for supporting my time overseas (especially since I left before the first semester was over...sooooo many exam scripts had to be scanned for me to mark overseas, a couple of lectures needed covering….). Specific thanks to my managers, Zoe Shipton and Clare Bond for your whole-hearted encouragement in opportunities like this research visit.
  • Likewise to my funders, Scotland’s Centre for Expertise on Climate Change (ClimateXChange) who permitted me to go and work overseas for a wee while. ClimateXChange work to provide policy relevant research, guidance and advice to Scottish Government on issues related to climate change.  
  • Also, a note of thanks to my collaborators for being ok with me being pretty much absent from projects for a wee while, besides the occasional email arriving at unusual hours (GMT). I realise that you probably appreciated the peace and quiet of my absence, and that I possibly needn’t have mentioned sun, warmth etc., in any correspondence.
  • To Edinburgh colleagues Ruta, Stuart and Sacha, for being so open to having me join the fieldwork. CO₂ seeps + faults and fractures + fresh air + a four by four + sunshine + marsupials = a recipe for a great week.
  • Finally, to my family in Perth for all the fun and help during my stay. The best kind of work travel is when it can also include some friends, family or fun travel - and it was wonderful to see my family so regularly for such an extended period of time.

 

[1] I also learnt that I had been pronouncing ‘antipodes’ completely wrong all of my life. I was informed of the correct pronunciation right at the end of my visit. This still makes me cringe to my very core...particularly given the number of times I had said ‘anti-podes’ in the months leading up to my trip. Shame on those who didn’t correct me!

Author(s): 
J. Roberts
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