The GeoX Suite: Environmental cells for NERC research using in situ imaging

Lead Research Organisation: University of Strathclyde
Department Name: Civil and Environmental Engineering

Abstract

Improving our understanding the natural world; how it has evolved, how it continues to evolve, and how it responds to human impacts and climate change are the main goals of all earth and environmental researchers. This work allows improvements in global stewardship, hazard mitigation, and more sustaiable resource management.

In recent years the development of very powerful x-ray imaging techniques allows us to see inside our samples without destroying them; meaning we understand the internal structures of rocks, soils, ice, plants, animals and man-made materials better than ever before. However, the most cutting edge systems allow us to collect images in just fractions of a second and allow us to put experimental equipment inside the imaging equipment. This means that with the right experimental equipment we could improve our understanding of the processes themselves: by watching them happen.

Imaging our geological samples under the relevant geological conditions could help us answer some of the outstanding challenges in earth and environmental research: working at high temperatures we could capture how bubbles drive volcanic eruptions; using pressurised fluid cells we could look at how corals adapt to changing ocean conditions; by imaging while we compress rocks under very high loads we could improve our understanding of fracture propagation during earthquakes; by working at low temperatures we could identify the processes controlling glacier movement or greenhouse gas release from melting permafrost, by imaging soil during wetting and drying we can understand how structure controls nutrient supply and drought resistance in plants; and if we combine pressure and temperature and deformation we can investigate how best to identify, extract and manage critical subsurface resources such as oil, gas, water, metals, minerals, and heat.

This proposal will deliver the GeoX suite of experimental apparatus to do just that; allowing earth and environmental researchers to gain new insight and understanding into how the planet works. The GeoX suite includes aparatus that lets us heat and cool our samples, lets us deform them till the break, lets us inject fluids into them or extract fluids from them, or do all of these thindgs at the same time. This means we can investigate almost every environment we are interested in.

The reserach done using the GeoX suite could ultimately help us improve our food and energy security, move towards a low carbon and low waste economy, reduce the impact of pollution in soils and sediments, preserve fragile ecosystems and environments, mitigate the effects of climate change, build more sustainable cities, and improve our ability to forecast and manage the risks and effects of natural events such as extreme weather, volcanic eruptions and earthquakes.

Planned Impact

The GeoX suite is primarily aimed at increasing research capability of the user group, allowing more innovation in their research programmes through access to the equipment. The widespread community engagement during the development of the GeoX suite proposal, and the diversity of research areas where the GeoX suite has potential application, makes impact and innovation highly likely and highly diverse. It is impossible to outline potential impacts here in details, and most NERC users will have impact pathways within the projects on which the GeoX Suite is being used.

Impact and innovation from all users will be tracked, but the metrics and timescale of that impact vary with project and application. Submission of a record of peer reviewed publications, conference proceedings, enabled grant income, new research collaborations, innovations and impact generated will be a requiement of GeoX access, as will acknowledgement of the GeoX grant in all result dissemination activity. We will run an online light touch reporting system. linked to the GeoX booking system, and will and make use of Research Fish and other established platforms. Early successes are likely to be through enhancement and extension of ongoing projects, providing additional impact through users embedded within CDT and DTP programmes; as well as through active NERC standard, consortia, and fellowship projects, larger directed programmes (e.g. UKGEOS, BRITROCK) and interdisciplinary engagement (e.g. UKRI, GCRF, ISCF).

The societal and economic benefits from GeoX will, most likely to be indirect, through improved practice and end user adoption of research outcomes. Improved soil sustainability and food security, increased energy security and decarbonisation of the energy portfolio, improved resource management (oil, gas, water, minerals, metals), increased circularity of production cycles, waste management, managing and mitigating the effects of environmental change are all areas where the asset is most likely to deliver substantial societal or economic benefit, especially early in the asset lifetime.

The asset will be used to generate new data and scientific understanding about a wide range of earth and environmental challenges: it is expected to enable new research areas and collaborations, both within the user group, and between the user group, other researchers and external agencies. Outputs (data) will generally be interrogated by the GeoX user to develop empirical understanding and/or develop, test and validate numerical models of the processes under observation. This knowledge is then generally used by the wider research community, industrial interests, and government agencies (Environment Agency, SEPA, Scottish Natural Heritage, British Geological Survey, Natural England, Highways England) to generate a variety of impact for the ultimate end user. The GeoX suite will allow the NERC community to improve the underpinning scientific understanding more rapidly, and could facilitate major breakthroughs and substantial downstream impact as yet unidentified, and increase the speed at which research impact is delivered to the end users. Impact is likley across all of the NERC research and innovation priorities.

This could include improved hazard & risk assessments (evacuation procedures, disaster relief, insurance, planning and mitigation), changes in ecosystem services, management and preservation practices, changes to policy and best practice (e.g. improve sustainability of farming practices, building codes, environmental management and monitoring regulations, waste reduction), or improve reliability of resource assessment, management and extraction (impacting on commodity and energy costs).

Publications

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