Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

The physics of a gas-powered world

By Science in Public

Eric May has been awarded the 2012 Malcolm McIntosh Prize for Physical Scientist of the Year.

Fifty years ago, natural gas was usually burnt off because it was too expensive to transport it long distances to customers. Then liquefaction became practical. That made the exploitation of Western Australia’s remote gas reserves possible. The gas can be transported as liquid natural gas (LNG) at 1/600th the volume of the original gas.

Today, Australian LNG is powering the economic transformation of Asia. It’s the cleanest fossil fuel. And Professor Eric May is on a mission to make it cleaner still.

His work links the most accurate measurements of the thermodynamic properties of fluids with producing LNG from Australia’s vast offshore reserves efficiently and safely.

He has been treading the interface between physics and chemical engineering ever since his PhD studies when he invented a patented instrument that uses the techniques of experimental physics to measure the thermodynamic properties of natural gas condensates, which are critical to the engineering of extraction and production facilities.

At present Eric is heavily involved in studies to determine the feasibility of various geosequestration options—such as extracting the CO2 from raw natural gas and reinjecting it back into the gas field. This has a potential double advantage of squeezing out any residual gas and entrapping the CO2 so that it does not add to what is already in the atmosphere. He also continues to work at ensuring the smooth flow of gas from well to production facility and its efficient conversion to a safe and usable product that can be traded internationally and easily delivered to customers.

In 2009, at the age of 32, his work was deemed to be of such significance and value to the oil and gas industry, that Chevron Australia established a Chair in Gas Process Engineering for him at the University of Western Australia (UWA). At the time he was the youngest professor at any university in Australia. In 2011, Chevron endowed that Chair at UWA in perpetuity.

For his work in the measurement of fundamental fluid properties and their application in bringing Australia’s natural gas resources to market, Professor Eric May has now been awarded the 2012
Malcolm McIntosh Prize for Physical Scientist of the Year.

“Adopting natural gas,” he says, “will have a profound impact on raising the living standards of people in Asia and Africa in particular, without the environmental impact that our past wealth has been built on. That’s what drives me.

“But I’m also passionate about helping Perth become an energy hub, such as Houston or Aberdeen—building an innovation centre in Perth that delivers technical solutions to the industry and provides it with the highest quality graduates.”

Since emigrating from the UK with his family at age nine, Eric May has become firmly rooted in, and passionate about, Perth and Australia. After an honours degree in physics at UWA, he embarked on a PhD jointly in physics and oil and gas engineering. That combination proved to be a harbinger of his career.

In his doctoral studies he used microwave cavities to measure quickly and accurately the combinations of temperature and pressure at which natural gas begins to condense into a liquid. The cavities are metal containers specially engineered to resonate at particular microwave frequencies. In this case, the cavities were about 100 cc and the pressure and temperature in them could be varied using a piston. The point at which liquid begins to form is measured by monitoring microwave frequencies.

“It’s actually quite a hard property to measure, and it’s very important to oil and gas engineers who are designing production systems, because if liquid begins to form while the fluid is still in the reservoir, you can lose valuable components, trapped in the heavy liquids. In fact, the condensate is the most valuable bit.

“Until my work, most of the measurements of the thermodynamics of natural gas had been made in the 1950s and 60s with the technology of that era. Experimental physics has moved on a long way—and offers the opportunity to deliver big improvements in our understanding. The natural gas industry is now working in more challenging conditions, dealing with more difficult fluids in more remote locations. We need a better understanding of how the fluids behave, otherwise we’re forced to over-engineer the production systems which becomes quite inefficient.”

Having learned that lesson, after he won an American Australian Association Education Fellowship Eric had no hesitation in going to the US National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in Maryland. “There, I received a lot of important training in experimental research. We looked at measurements that could start to test modern theories that use quantum mechanics to predict the properties of simple fluids.”

After three years in the US, it was back to Perth to apply what he had absorbed. “The properties I learned to measure at NIST, I still measure today in the applied problems of oil and gas engineering—although now I trade off extreme measurement accuracy for extreme measurement conditions.”

But he came back to Perth for other reasons as well. Certainly family and environment were important. Both he and his wife, an aspiring writer, are from Perth. “I love working in Australia and Perth. And my longer-term career goal was to teach and train the next generation, because the most impact one can have is through teaching students. Also, I could see that Perth and Western Australia were set for a boom in gas, and that gas was going to become increasingly important, and there were plenty of opportunities here.”

Although Australia has massive reserves of gas, they are in such remote locations that the product cannot simply be sent through a pipeline to the major markets in Asia. The nation has to produce LNG to trade the gas—and that’s very energy intensive. It uses 10 to 12 per cent of the gas extracted.

Also, there’s a lot CO2 in Australian gas, which would freeze out as LNG is produced causing all sorts of problems—so it has to be removed. And, nowadays, it cannot simply be vented into the atmosphere.

Which is why almost all the problems that Eric now investigates come back to increasing the efficiency of production, transport and processing of raw natural gas. “If we can make just a two or three per cent improvement, it will save a lot of energy and CO2.

“I think that science is a partnership between experiment and theory. My background is doing very high accuracy experiments. They are hard to do, but if you don’t do them accurately, you may as well not be doing the work. It is important to use them to test theory, and then to use that theory again to challenge experiment. That’s the thing I enjoy most about research.”

In his work on geosequestration, for instance, where he is co-scientific leader of UWA’s participation in the National Geosequestration Laboratory, he has been particularly concerned with studying how CO2 injected back into the reservoir will mix with the remaining raw gas. “If it mixes too much, that’s a disaster.

“Our measurements have helped reduce the uncertainty, and then reservoir engineers can model the injection process more confidently. The mixing looks to be very small. But we have further work to do, where we actually take our lab data and put it into reservoir simulators. Because what we can measure is the fundamental fluid interaction—but as to what’s going to happen in any given scenario, you have to model that at the field scale.”

Eric’s research also involves a lot of collaborative work, which is why he is deputy director of UWA’s Centre for Energy, which brings together all the academics at the university whose work has a focus on energy. He maintains close contact with colleagues in the US, the UK and New Zealand. Several of his 12 PhD and six post-doctoral students are from overseas.

Given his work and three children aged seven, four and two, most of his time is spoken for. But Eric does look forward to his weekly games of basketball and men’s mixed netball. And there is one part of his life in which Perth is not foremost. “I try to get away for a few days’ skiing at least once a year.”