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ScienceWise - Autumn 2012

Core business

Article Illustration
The petrochemical industry are one of the principal customers for rock characterisation

Successfully transferring technology from the lab to industry

Modern hospitals are generally equipped with an X-ray CT scanner - a machine that takes an X-ray of the body from all angles then compiles the images into a three dimensional picture. It’s an amazing diagnostic technology but its application isn’t restricted to medicine. Such techniques are equally useful in imaging scientific specimens. However whilst a resolution of a millimetre or so may be adequate for diagnosing disease and injury in something the size of the human body, science is often dealing with much smaller samples with much finer structure.

This was exactly the situation back in the late 1990s when researchers from Applied Maths in the Research School of Physics and Engineering began investigating the fundamentals of fluid flow in porous materials including ink on paper and oil in rocks.  In each case, the fibres and pores respectively are very small yet their organisation determines critically how fluids behave when they come into contact with the material. Having looked at the limited range of commercial machines available to analyse such samples, the researchers decided to build their own!

The prototype scanner was capable of very much higher resolution than a typical hospital scanner and enabled the mapping of small samples in unprecedented detail. But of course generating the x-ray data is only half of the battle. They also had to create a vast suite of software that would turn the huge volumes of data into an accurate and useful 3D model of the sample.

In time all the hard work paid off. Not only did they have a unique and useful scientific tool, their scanner and its software began a chain of events that would ultimately lead to the formation of a multi-million dollar company.

The establishment of an international industry consortium of the world’s largest oil and gas companies drove the researchers to focus on the analysis of porous rocks such as those that house oil and gas reservoirs. The proportion of solid to void and the way those voids are interconnected make an enormous difference to the way fluids like oil, gas and water flow through rock. And if you’re in the petrochemical business, flow characteristics are one of the most important factors in setting up a profitable drilling operation.

Realising the potential usefulness of the new scanner and software to the petrochemical industry, the University set up a spin-off company called Digitalcore to commercialise the technology.

“It took over 18 months to set the company up and on our first business day in May 2009 we had one and a half staff, an office and no work!” Digitalcore CEO Dr Victor Pantano says. “It was very tough for the first 18 months but now we are getting a steady stream of orders coming in and the company is beginning to grow.”

In March 2012 Digitalcore announced a merger with Numerical Rocks AS of Trondheim Norway – another spin-off company involved in rock analysis. Together they will form a company with offices in Australia, Norway, the US and the Middle East.

“As the price of oil has increased over the years, it has become commercially viable to exploit the more difficult reservoirs and especially to tackle what’s known in the industry as unconventionals,” Dr Pantano explains, “That includes things like shales and tight gas sands.”

“Whilst there are alternative methods for characterizing core samples from rock, the only way to get reliable data in many of these unconventional reservoirs is using the techniques that we’ve been developing. Much of Digitalcore’s growth in the coming years will be based on the analysis of samples from unconventional reservoirs”

“Ironically one of the greatest difficulties the company currently faces is recruiting skilled people. “The resources boom means that graduates in the geo and petro areas are in high demand so it’s hard to get enough people to fill the positions we have available.”

One novel solution has been to recruit under-graduates from the University to undertake the scanning and basic image processing work. “This scheme has provided us with high quality people to undertake much of the pre-analysis work and gives the students an income stream and perhaps more importantly, hands on experience in a booming industry.” Victor says.

Working together, Digitalcore and the University have managed to secure several millions of dollars of research funding to continue fundamental research into instrument design and novel computer algorithms while branching out into new application areas such as coal and CO2 sequestration.  The researchers continue to maintain a vibrant and active international industry consortium which is unique within the University.

Digitalcore is an excellent example of how advanced science and  technology can, in the right hands, make the transition from the lab to a commercially viable business venture which benefits both industry and the University.

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