An Alpine Adventure

I am Dr. Katherine Daniels, an early career experimental research scientist working on low permeability materials in the Fluid Processes Laboratory at the British Geological Survey. I conduct tests to quantify the properties of these materials so that we understand the range of behaviours that they show under different conditions and can confidently use them as barriers to the flow of fluids underground. This September I was fortunate enough to spend a week in the Swiss Alps as the result of an Early Career Researchers Development Fund grant from the GeoEnergy Research Centre (GERC). The purpose of my trip to Switzerland was to attend the 7th International Conference on Clays in Natural and Engineered Barriers for Radioactive Waste Confinement (or the Clay Conference for short!), hosted by the Swiss radioactive waste management organisation NAGRA and held in Davos.

The view down the valley from Davos towards Davos Dorf, Switzerland

Nestled in the valley between Jakobshorn, Weissfluh and Klosters-Parsenn, near to the Austrian and Italian borders, Davos is over 1500m above sea level, a fact one appreciates when arriving via the beautifully picturesque but mind-bogglingly steep railway line. I had not visited the Alps during the summertime before and was surprised to see how green the mountains were. It was a real treat to be able to enjoy the spectacular views of my surroundings both from the hotel and when walking to and from the conference centre.

As it is infrequently held, the Clay Conference is always well attended by scientists and researchers from around the world. Over 400 people from 21 countries attended this year’s meeting, making it a great place to network and meet others working in the same field, as well as to be able to put faces to names I recognised from the published literature. The conference began with two plenary sessions on Monday and each morning thereafter, with simultaneous technical sessions held every afternoon on a number of different subject themes. This format meant that I could choose a number of different sessions to attend that were of specific interest to my research. Unfortunately, after a much-delayed fight to Switzerland, I missed the conference icebreaker on the Sunday night; I therefore made certain that I attended the beer and cheese event at the poster exhibition after the last talks on Monday. This event allowed scientists to meet and discuss ideas from the first day’s presentations and posters with a beer from the local Davos brewery. I was then extremely pleased to get the opportunity to have an authentic Swiss meal on Monday evening with the principle conference organiser, two other scientists from radioactive waste management organisations and colleagues from the BGS. The Tuesday evening held the conference dinner at the InterContinental Hotel in Davos Dorf. Locally known as the “Golden Egg”, the InterContinental Hotel was spectacularly set at the side of a lake and boasted great views as well as one of the most extensive cheese buffets I have ever seen! The conference dinner was a fantastic opportunity to mix with other delegates in a relaxed environment and meet many new people.

Giving my presentation at the Clay Conference 2017

I was very fortunate to have the opportunity to give a talk before lunch on Wednesday in the session on “Hydraulic and Diffusion Processes”, which was attended by a large number of people. The work that I presented was on the effect of elevated temperature on the hydraulic and gas permeability of bentonite1,2. There is a great paucity of experimental data on gas permeabilities, especially at elevated temperature, because the measurements are extremely difficult to make; the Fluid Processes Laboratories at the BGS have the equipment to enable us to conduct steady-state gas permeability measurements, and this therefore rendered my presentation of interest to many people. The abstracts were provided to each of the conference attendees so the research I presented will have a wide impact, especially amongst colleagues from the Research Entities (REs) and Waste Management Organisations (WMOs) in Europe who were well represented at the conference. In addition, there were delegates in attendance from as far afield as Japan and South Korea.

The scientists that I met from the UK’s Radioactive Waste Management (RWM) were very interested in the work that I had done and in the capabilities of the laboratories at the BGS, and I hope that we can develop a new a fruitful collaboration together. I was also pleased to meet researchers from European countries who are working towards the development of the proposal for the next European Commission funding call, and I hope that I have demonstrated the need to conduct further gas permeability testing at elevated temperature for the general benefit of European Waste Disposal programmes. I received valuable feedback on my work, and discussions with the people that I met have furnished me with additional ideas for the next steps in my research. Maintaining the alliterative theme to summarise: Alpine adventure - absolutely awesome.

Enjoying the view from the top of Jakobshorn

1.  Daniels, K. A., Harrington, J. F., Zihms, S. G., and Wiseall, A. C., 2017. Bentonite Permeability at Elevated Temperature. Geosciences, 7(3), doi:10.3390/geosciences7010003
2.  Zihms, S. G., and Harrington, J. F., 2015. Thermal cycling: impact on bentonite permeability. Mineralogical Magazine, 79, 1543–1550.

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