Striving to translate shale physics across ten orders of magnitude: What have we learned?

Yashar Mehmani, Timothy Anderson, Yuhang Wang, Saman A. Aryana, Ilenia Battiato, Hamdi A. Tchelepi, Anthony R. Kovscek

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

24 Scopus citations


Shales will play an important role in the successful transition of energy from fossil-based resources to renewables in the coming decades. Aside from being a significant source of low-carbon intensity fuels, like natural gas, they also serve as geologic seals of subsurface formations that may be used to isolate nuclear waste, sequester CO2, or store intermittent energy (e.g., solar hydrogen). Despite their importance, shales pose significant engineering and environmental challenges due to their nanoporous structure and extreme heterogeneity that spans at least ~10 orders of magnitude in spatial scale. Two challenges inhibit a system-level understanding: (1) the physics of fluid flow and phase behavior in shales are poorly understood due to the dominant molecular interactions between minerals and fluids under confinement, and (2) the apparent lack of scale separation that prevents a reliable (closed) description of the physics at any single scale of observation. In this review, we focus on the latter issue and discuss scale translation, which in its broadest sense is transforming data or simulations from one spatiotemporal scale to another. While effective scale translation is not exclusive to shales, but all geologic porous media, the need for it is especially acute in shales given their high degree of heterogeneity. Classical theories like homogenization, while indispensable, fail when scales are not separated. Other methods, like numerical upscaling, scale-translate in only one direction: small to large, but not the reverse, called downscaling. However, the confluence of advances in three areas are bringing challenging problems such as shales within reach: increased computational power and scalable algorithms; high-resolution imaging and multi-modal data acquisition; and machine learning to process massive amounts of data. While these advances equip geoscientists with a wide array of experimental and computational tools, no individual tool can probe the entire gamut of heterogeneity in shales. Their effective use, therefore, requires an ability to bridge between various data types obtained at different scales. The aim of this review is to present a coherent account of computational and experimental methods that may be used to achieve just that, i.e., to perform scale translation. We provide a broader definition of scale translation, one that transcends classical homogenization and upscaling methods, but is consistent with them and accommodates notions like downscaling and data translation. After a brief introduction to homogenization, we review hybrid methods, numerical upscaling and its recent extensions, multiscale computing, high-resolution imaging, and machine learning. We place particular emphasis on multiscale computing and propose an algorithmic framework to bridge between the pore (micro) and Darcy (macro) scales. Throughout the paper, we draw comparisons between the various methods and highlight their (often hidden) similarities, differences, benefits, and pitfalls. We finally conclude with two case studies on shales that exemplify some of the methods presented.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number103848
JournalEarth-Science Reviews
StatePublished - Dec 2021

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General Earth and Planetary Sciences


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