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Iowa Researcher Uses 3-D Printing To Understand What Lies Beneath

An assistant professor at Iowa State University is using 3-D printing to teach students about geology. In the process, he’s been developing a way to understand and even predict how materials trapped in rock – such as oil and gas – can be extracted.

When Franek Hasiuk had a job in the oil and gas industry, he used two-dimensional CAT scans to study the pores in limestone in an effort to understand how fluid flows through them.

Related: Can New Technology Help The Oil Sands Industry Clean Up Its Act?

When he came to Iowa State in 2012 to teach geological and atmospheric sciences, he said, he decided that his goal in both research and teaching was to use similar technology in “projects that students could work on that would make [the students] interesting to industry – and employable.”

Hasiuk first worked with the CAT, or CT, tools to study rock formations in two dimensions and then moved on to making three-dimensional scans, and finally 3-D prints, of porous rocks.

He told the Iowa State University News Service that he hasn’t reached his goal yet, but he’s making tangible progress. “We’re taking really small holes in rock and then printing them at magnification,” he said. “We’re not getting perfect photocopying yet, but we’re getting there.”

To demonstrate the value of 3-D models in geology, Hasiuk uses a model of Mars shrunk to about the size of a golf ball. This ball isn’t smooth, though: The fingers can feel the outcropping of Olympus Mons, the huge Martian volcano three times as tall as Mount Everest on Earth.

Hasiuk calls this model “just spectacular,” yet it’s just a small part of the work he’s doing at Iowa State’s tiny Geological Fabrication Laboratory, affectionately called the GeoFabLab. The lab’s focus is 3-D scanning, 3-D printing and, according to its website, “making things geological!”

As Hasiuk’s lab improves the quality of its 3-D scans and prints, he said, he and his students “can make models of pore networks and see how fluids flow through them.”

“Eventually, we’ll get to the point of making predictions and increasing the accuracy of predictions, Hasiuk said. “What geology does for the economy is reduce uncertainty when you need to get something from underground – like oil and gas.”

Related: New Technology Could End The Debate Over Pipeline Safety

Which brings us to Hasiuk’s boast that the studies will make his students employable. He said the energy industry already is showing strong interest in his research.

“3-D printing is a great communication tool,” he said. “You don’t have to teach someone a shape. You can understand by touching.”

By Andy Tully of Oilprice.com

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