The geological storyteller

Dr Stuart Clark applies AI to understand complex and poorly understood regions of the Earth’s crust to improve decision-making in the exploration for resources such as minerals, water and gas.

When thinking about the work of Dr Stuart Clark and how it applies to UNSW’s School of Minerals and Energy Resources Engineering (MERE), it is useful to see the whole Earth as a creation in continual flux. Then, if years become milliseconds and you can soar not only into the past but also deep underground, you’ll be able to watch as plates slide, rocks melt, mountains rise, and oceans fall in a giant organised jumble of rock, mineral, water and gas transformation. Dr Stuart Clark

This big-picture-long-view visualisation exercise gives an inkling of what he is trying to achieve with vast arrays of data, supercomputers and the latest advances in AI and machine learning.

“As an Earth scientist, I’m fascinated by the large-scale geodynamic evolution of the planet and have spent much of my career building tools that help us create a large-scale picture of the Earth and how it has evolved over millennia,” says Clark, who is a senior lecturer in geology and geophysics at the School.

“This research has piqued the interest of the petroleum industry because they are able to take the tools I’m creating, that visualise what’s going on in the deeper earth, to better understand how subsurface storage of energy resources are created and where they are located.”

According to Clark, these tools enable resources companies to be more accurate when locating resources, require them to dig fewer wells, result in better risk assessments, save them money, and reduce the overall footprint of resources exploration. Given these benefits, there is little wonder his research has attracted significant funding.

Global geodynamics captured Clark’s imagination during his PhD at the University of Sydney when he started exploring the numerical modelling of Earth processes. He was particularly interested in looking at the historical formation of subduction zones (where the Earth recycles its crust), while, at the same time, looking at the data constraints of these zones to understand how they are evolving from a dynamics perspective.

This research has piqued the interest of the petroleum industry because they are able to take the tools I’m creating, that visualise what’s going on in the deeper earth, to better understand how oil and gas reservoirs are created and where they are located.

Dr Stuart Clark, Senior Lecturer, UNSW Minerals and Energy Resources Engineering

This fascination deepened through his work at the Norwegian Government-owned Simula Research Laboratory and as Director of Research at Simula’s software spin-off company Kalkulo, where he extended his interests into sedimentary basin formation. In these roles he worked closely with government and industry, gathering and understanding this data and creating tools to help them predict the location of petroleum resources.

“Norway has a large petroleum industry and they funded a lot of our research into how sedimentary basins are formed and how oil and gas are generated. One particularly exciting visualisation project I was involved in resulted in software called 4D Plates. This enabled the visualisation of a wide range of data relevant for multi-disciplinary analysis of geological scenarios through hundreds of millions of years,” he explains.

Clark is thrilled to have joined the MERE team and says he is interested in making these kinds of tools accessible to petroleum engineers, geophysicists and geologists working in the exploration industry, as well as Earth scientists concerned with getting a better understanding of the Earth itself.

“It’s incredible that we still don’t really know much about the fundamental geophysical processes behind the Earth’s evolution. By applying machine learning to interpret the data that we have and explore different scenarios, I think we’ll be able to create dynamic reconstructions that will rapidly deepen our knowledge,” he continues.

With expertise that spans mathematics, physics, geology, data science and supercomputing, Clark says he is able to offer a truly multidisciplinary viewpoint to the School and he hopes to become a kind of interface between petroleum engineers, computer scientists, Earth scientists and industry.

“My contribution to the School will be to bridge the communication gap between technical engineering solutions and cutting-edge science at a large scale. I can provide a wealth of information to those with an interest in accessing the Earth’s potential, not just in fossil fuels but in solving the energy and climate change problems of the future. I’m also in a good position to give advice about how the Earth’s evolution might influence the effectiveness of those solutions.”

 

Written by: Penny Jones

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Photogallery

  • Early Cretaceous Reconstruction of the Geological Structures of the Barents Sea
  • Subduction model showing a slab decending into the Earth's mantle from Clark et al., 2008.