3D Printing

Robot Rocks

Sadly, this isn’t about Daft Punk and their mastery in electronic music, though I have to admit, actual robot rocks embedded with sensors are pretty innovative and interesting too.

Interesting enough, in fact, to be awarded a 5 year, €3 million grant from the EU’s research and innovation program. To give some context, only 16 proposals were awarded funding out of 1,900.


So what’s the project?

A research team at the Heriot-Watt University in Scotland wanted to find out more about how fluid flow through reservoir rocks. The ultimate goal is to monitor the flow from inside of ‘smart rocks’ which are 3D printed and embedded with sensors. The team is particularly interested in finding out more than what scientists already know.


The project is being lead by Mercedes Maroto-Valer, professor and director of the Energy Academy at the university, and it could be the first time this method has been used.

“I think our unique angle here is that we are able to bring the expertise from manufacturing, sensor technologies, and petroleum engineering all together for this project,” said Maroto-Valer.

As the implications of the use of petroleum come closer to bite at our ankles, the importance of research in this field has become increasingly important. Even though this is a big problem, scientists are looking at how fluids and hydrocarbons flow through tiny samples, and how controlling micro-forces is linked to the macro-forces that control production on the scale of a reservoir.

But How?

The team is planning to 3D print core samples which in 1:1 scale, and install the sensors whilst they are being printed, in places where they won’t compromise the parts they want to monitor.  “If I am able to have sensors embedded within them, then I will be able to get real-time data on what happens within the structure,” explains Maroto-Valer. “And of course because I am printing the structure, I can have full control over how I want that structure to look.”

The data obtained from the experiments will be recorded and used to create virtual models, helping engineers to design more successful methods of fraking and the completion of horizontal shale wells, as well as the recovery of oil in places previously used for industrial purposes.

However, the focus for now, is on developing and testing the 3D printed rocks and sensors themselves. This includes trying out different sensors, as well as printing the rocks in different materials, such as various plastics, glass and different metals. Testing these different materials will help the researchers find a material that accurately replicates the behaviour of the rocks they are trying to mimic. It is also hoped that they will try to embed calcite inside of the rock cores, much like the formations of the actual rocks.