Innovative project set to use cosmic rays detectors to map out carbon storage volumes

Researchers from the University of Sheffield will be at the centre of a bid by a group of scientists to develop a novel technique using cosmic rays for monitoring storage sites for carbon dioxide (CO2).


Geoscientists, particle physicists and engineers will work together to examine the potential of using sub-atomic particles from cosmic rays – known as muons – which cascade from the upper atmosphere and go on to penetrate rock several kilometres underground.

The detection of cosmic ray muons can be used to map the density profile of the material above the detectors and hence measure on-going levels of CO2 in any potential carbon store.

Carbon storage could play a major part of UK and global environmental policies to tackle global warming but still allow us to generate clean, affordable energy.

Dr Lee Thompson, Reader in Particle Physics at the University of Sheffield, said: "Applying Particle Physics know-how to the issue of monitoring the storage of captured carbon is a novel and innovative idea. This grant will enable us to refine our experimental techniques for this particular application and perform trial deployments of cosmic ray detectors.”

Carbon capture and storage (CCS) refers to the process of capturing waste CO2 from major sources of emission, such as fossil fuel power stations, to prevent it entering the atmosphere. The carbon is then transported (this could be in fluid form by pipeline) to a storage site. Old oil and gas fields, such as those in the North Sea, are considered to be potential storage sites. Capturing and storing CO2 is seen as a way to prevent global warming and ocean acidification.

The current monitoring methodology is expensive and typically involves the collection of seismic data which enables snapshots of carbon storage levels to be taken over time. Muon tomography offers the chance to develop a continuous and passive monitoring system for deep sub-surface storage sites.

Project leader Professor Jon Gluyas, of the Department of Earth Sciences at Durham University, said: "This technology crosses between traditional scientific disciplines and could radically reduce the cost of monitoring CO2 storage sites, saving perhaps hundreds of millions of pounds per annum.

“The essential support from DECC and industry partners will allow us to develop improved detectors and to model and test our technology in practice.”

The team comprises of the Universities of Sheffield, Durham, Bath and Newcastle, the STFC Rutherford Appleton Laboratory and NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Caltech supported by Premier Oil & Gas and Cleveland Potash Limited.

The Department of Energy and Climate Change is providing £647,000 for the monitoring project alongside matched funding from industry. The devices developed will be tested deep underground at Boulby mine on the edge of the North Yorkshire moors.

Dr Sean Paling, Honorary Senior Research fellow at the University of Sheffield and Director and Senior Scientist of the Boulby Deep Underground Science Facility, said : “We are very pleased to be a part of such important research on CCS. Boulby will be a key partner with Durham in this project as it is one of the few places available in the world for the team to develop CCS monitoring technology in an environment that is safe, relatively easy to access and one that simulates the depths and geology within which future Carbon Capture sites will operate. Our involvement in this work further demonstrates the versatility of the facility we have at Boulby and the increasing breadth of internationally significant science areas we are participating in."

The DECC grant is part of a larger funding stream of £18.5m for CCS innovation projects, the latest funding to be awarded from the Government’s 4-year, £125m CCS R&D Programme. 13 projects have been awarded funding to develop and test new ideas to further reduce the cost of CCS.

Additional information

With nearly 25,000 students from 125 countries, the University of Sheffield is one of the UK’s leading and largest universities. A member of the Russell Group, it has a reputation for world-class teaching and research excellence across a wide range of disciplines. The University of Sheffield has been named University of the Year in the Times Higher Education Awards for its exceptional performance in research, teaching, access and business performance. In addition, the University has won four Queen’s Anniversary Prizes (1998, 2000, 2002, and 2007).

These prestigious awards recognise outstanding contributions by universities and colleges to the United Kingdom’s intellectual, economic, cultural and social life. Sheffield also boasts five Nobel Prize winners among former staff and students and many of its alumni have gone on to hold positions of great responsibility and influence around the world. The University’s research partners and clients include Boeing, Rolls-Royce, Unilever, Boots, AstraZeneca, GSK, ICI, Slazenger, and many more household names, as well as UK and overseas government agencies and charitable foundations.

The University has well-established partnerships with a number of universities and major corporations, both in the UK and abroad. Its partnership with Leeds and York Universities in the White Rose Consortium has a combined research power greater than that of either Oxford or Cambridge.


For further information please contact:

Paul Mannion
Media Relations Officer
The University of Sheffield
0114 2229851