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Meet the Expert: 5 Minutes with Richard Worden

calendar March 26, 2024
Richard Worden

We sat down with Richard Worden ahead of his upcoming GeoLogica course: Carbon Capture and Storage Masterclass (E502)

What is your field and specialization?

That’s an interesting question and not that simple to answer, actually. My field is broadly the area of sedimentary geology and within that my specializations are quite wide-ranging, including geochemistry, sedimentology itself, petrophysics, even moving into geomechanics. In terms of area of application, of course carbon capture and storage is my focus, but these days I have also applied it to hydrogen storage and, though this might seem like a stretch to some people, nuclear waste disposal in low-strength sedimentary rocks. That was working with Nuclear Waste Services, which is an arm of the UK government. We are working together to develop a repository for the UK’s medium- and high-level nuclear waste deep underground, away from any possible exposure for thousands to millions of years – so an incredibly long timescale.

Tell us a bit about your teaching journey

OK, I’ll take it right back to the beginning. The first teaching I ever did was as a postgraduate demonstrator to undergraduates when I was a PhD student at the University of Manchester. I enjoyed it, but I soon realized at the tender age of 22 that dealing with 18-year-old undergraduates can be quite a challenge! They’re a surly, unresponsive bunch at times – you have to work hard to explain things to them and you need different ways to explain them.

The next thing I did was teach on a course called Reservoir Quality Prediction for BP. I worked for BP from 1989 to the mid 1990s and the team I was part of delivered the course to different teams around the world. One of the most memorable occasions was when I ran the course in Yemen, of all places, in 1991 or 1992. It was quite an interesting place to go in those days – a sort of Wild West!

I left BP and briefly became a temporary lecturer on a three-year contract at Durham, but I was almost immediately offered a permanent job at Queen’s University Belfast. The peace process was in full swing and it was a lovely place to be. So, I was a lecturer in geology at Queens Belfast for five years, then I left there and came to Liverpool in 2000, which is where I’ve been teaching ever since. I’ve been giving professional training courses since 2006. The very first one I gave was to a company called CEPSA in Madrid, Spain, and it was a course called Reservoir Quality Prediction. No surprise that it was a similar area to what I taught for BP. Technical content was vastly different 10 years later, though. I’ve been teaching carbon capture and storage as a master class and offering courses in geochemistry of carbon capture and storage. I’ve been doing that for 2 1/2 years or so and I’ve given the course many times – 37 times, in fact, to more than 600 people.

What is your favourite memory from fieldwork or field training?

I’m going to give two because the first was as a participant. I didn’t really like the way I was taught field geology as an undergraduate, and it was only when I joined BP and received their tailor-made field training that I really enjoyed it. Although, just to back up a little bit here – the field training I received as an undergraduate seemed a bit ad hoc, but the mapping dissertation I did, which was in glorious Snowdonia in North Wales during the weirdly hot summer of 1983, was a baptism of fire. I loved it. Absolutely. When I started to do my undergraduate mapping I was not a geologist but I finished it as a geologist. I fully understood by the end what it was all about.

And then I joined BP and I went on a number of field classes. The most memorable was a two-week field class called Sedimentology 1. We travelled from roughly the Chesterfield/Sheffield region all the way up to Berwick upon Tweed, stopping at four different locations over two weeks. In the mornings, we did a bit of classroom work – (there was a flatbed lorry following us along the route taking core, believe it or not) – and then we’d look at rocks in-situ as well. The rocks gave us 3-D, the core gave us 1-D and the theory filled in the gaps. I thought it was the most amazing field experience I’d ever had. It really brought everything together. It has informed the way I’ve done field teaching ever since.

I used to run a field class on the south coast of England in Devon and Dorset called the Wessex Basin field class. Many, many people have given courses like that. My own evolved over the years and developed quite a unique flavor – I know people have gone on my course and then subsequent courses, and they appreciated what I delivered. But my favorite memory of field teaching, in terms of giving and designing a course, was a two-week field class on petroleum reservoir geoscience that we used to run at Liverpool for the MSC course. It covered all the way from Brora and Helmsdale up in north-east Scotland to as far as Flamborough Head. We visited reservoirs of all sorts of different ages, lithologies and depositional environments. We had wireline log equivalents for all the outcrops. The students could work on the outcrop and we’d have short lectures. Guess what we based that course on? Yep, the two-week field class from BP. The big difference was the access to core. No one would have paid for a flatbed lorry to be following us around and we just don’t have that material available at Liverpool!

Tell us about your upcoming course with GeoLogica – what is it about and who is it for?

It is a Carbon Capture and Storage Masterclass (E502) and it’s a mature course. It’s had its rough edges knocked off – not that there were that many to begin with! But as a teacher you realize some parts of a course can work better than others. And as you get little bits of feedback and comments, you realize where students need more information and sometimes where they need less. The needs of every class are different and that also requires thinking about. I have found that when I give the course to an individual company, they ask lots and lots of detailed questions, but when it’s an open course with people from many different companies and backgrounds, they are much more reticent and there is less discussion. That means there’s slightly more time available for exercises or it can feel less squeezed – fitting the material into a five-session slot is a bit of an art, to tell you the truth.

The course kicks off talking about the very reason we need to undertake carbon capture and storage – we are emitting greenhouse gases at an incredibly fast rate, much faster than nature can draw them down. And it looks like we aren’t able to stop using fossil fuels without causing a social catastrophe, so we need a way of mitigating or ameliorating the gases that are emitted. The objective is to inject them underground as much as possible and as soon as possible. On the course we deal with geophysical aspects, seismic analysis of carbon capture and storage sites, especially 4-D seismic and imaging a CO2 plume moving through a saline aquifer. We deal with log data, we deal with sedimentological data, we deal with geochemical data and geomechanical data, and aspects of all of these pertaining to carbon capture and storage. It is hugely focused on carbon capture and I dip into all and every discipline necessary to give people a holistic understanding of it.

The course is designed for people with at least some experience of the subsurface, preferably geologists or petroleum engineers. I’ve also taught people with more of a chemistry and physics background; so long as they’re mentally alert enough with enough background knowledge, they can keep up, too. (I wouldn’t recommend the five-session course to people without a technical background, though.) There are lots of exercises that provide a break from listening and discussing, and this is where the attendees can test their knowledge. What I find is that the discussion that goes on between attendees when they’re put into breakout rooms to work together is where lots of shared learning happens, because people have caught on to different aspects and they seem to almost always get to the answer, which is very pleasing.

Tell us a fun fact about yourself that most people don’t know

First and foremost, despite working for BP, despite my area of research and all the papers I’ve published, despite giving all these courses, my PhD was in hard-rock geology, metamorphic geology. It is a huge departure to go from that PhD topic to what I’ve done ever since. Most people would not even guess it. So, there’s one fact. What other facts? I go swimming at least five times a week. I swim outdoors as much as possible, including in the sea in Pembroke. Interestingly, it wasn’t that cold when I went in last week, but the waves were very high and my wife got quite nervous for me. She started waving her arms like a maniac and I thought she was saying, ‘Hello.’ She was actually saying, ‘Come back before you end up in America!’ I go to yoga sessions at least three times a week and between yoga and swimming I’m trying to keep myself hale and hearty, despite the fact that I’m not 100% at the moment. But one does one’s best. I’m also a vegetarian and have been for more than 40 years, which people are often quite surprised about because some people think vegetarians are a joyless and dour bunch of people and that is most certainly not me in any regard whatsoever! So, there we go. There’s a few facts.

Why did you change tack after doing a PhD in hard rock geology?

Well, that takes me back to the previous comment. I was slightly uncomfortable during the PhD about the lack of application to the work I was doing. There is a need for theory, there is a need for work that doesn’t immediately have an application, and you could argue my PhD was preparation for what I’m doing now, but did the work lead to or was it part of a movement that changed the world? I really struggled to say yes to that. I like waking up in the morning and thinking I am going to do something today that somewhere along the line might help someone say, ‘Yes, we can use that. Now we can make practical decisions. This will help us with our day-to-day decision making.’ That is what I love. I love that notion – making a difference. That’s what I changed.

What is the biggest challenge facing the sector today from your perspective?

Where do we begin? Continuity of government initiatives is one. The biggest risk to the world, as far as I can see, and this might be a bit political, is a change of presidency in the United States and bringing in someone who eviscerates the Inflation Reduction Act and removes the incentive for carbon capture and storage. That would have knock-on effects around the world because the United States is very much leading what’s going on at the moment, with other countries following very close on their heels. But the USA is pushing very, very hard. I think we have our own issues in the UK with continuity of government initiatives and motivating companies to engage in carbon capture and storage. There was the so-called ‘Lost Decade of CCS’ from about 2010 to maybe 2017, when there had been lots of initiatives promoting companies to advance CCS and then the UK government removed the incentives and lots of projects withered on the vine. Some may never come back or have only lately started to come back. If we’d done these things 10 years previously, the problems that we are now facing would have been a lot less.

I think public acceptance of carbon capture and storage cannot be assumed. We saw what happened with fracking. I think it was right that fracking was objected to by the public as it would have been exactly the wrong time to develop a new fracking industry in NW England, for example, but the decision not to go ahead wasn’t driven by policy and by decision-making, it was driven by a somewhat hysterical public reaction. We must make sure the same thing doesn’t happen with carbon capture and storage.We need to get out there and talk to as many people as we humanly can about what is going to happen and what the risks are. And we should be realistic with people, rather than hiding the facts from them. We also need to talk about how good carbon capture and storage needs to be in order to be effective. It isn’t just good enough to put ‘quite a lot’ of CO2 underground. We need to put the vast majority that we are producing underground. There are other problems as well. For CCS to work, we need to get away from using point sources of burning fossil fuels. I’ve got the central heating on at home because it’s very cold, but we can’t capture that carbon dioxide. If the house was heated one way or another through electricity from a central power station, then we would be in a much, much better position to capture that centrally generated CO2 and dispose of it. And that’s the drive behind heat pumps and so on, because they will be driven by electricity. What we need to do is insulate houses effectively to make the heat pumps vital. We need to move to electric cars and electric vehicles in general. I think that is a major problem and the government is not dealing with it at all in terms of costs, feasibility, supply of electricity to houses to charge up cars and so on.

What would be your advice to junior geoscientists starting their careers today?

Interesting question . . . Persevere.

Be prepared to go outside your comfort zone. Trust in the wider world. Don’t cut options off too early. Be prepared to change your career direction, as I did after my on PhD, because it can be incredibly fruitful and rewarding. My own motivation, I’ve realized increasingly as time goes on, is to make a difference. To start with, the first motivation for most people is just to keep body and soul together, earn enough money to have somewhere to live, put food on the table and stay warm. Once you’re beyond that and you are heading towards mid-career, you can think about making a difference to the world around you. I think we geoscientists are in a prime position to help with some of the world’s major problems. So, think about that and stick at it. Don’t give in too early.

Also, be prepared to move. If you are a home-bod who just wants to stay in your immediate vicinity, then you might struggle. In terms of a meaningful career, it’s important to move. Once you’re in a position of strength, you can start determining where you live, as opposed to just being buffeted by where the jobs are made available, but at the beginning of your career, you need some flexibility in terms of where you live.

Give us your best/worst geology joke

Q: What’s the definition of a geologist?

A: Someone who drinks too much and has a bad sense of time!

RW – Whoops. I wasn’t prepared for that at all!
GeoL – The cornier the better!

Find out more about Richard Worden’s upcoming course: Carbon Capture and Storage Masterclass (E502)