Meet the scientist #2 – Helga Ferket

Helga Ferket is a researcher & policy advisor for the deep subsurface within the Department of Environment working for the Flemish Planning Bureau for the Environment and Spatial Development (VPO). Helga finished her master in geology at KULeuven in 1998 followed by a PhD on fluid flow and deformation in foreland fold-and-thrust belts. She then left Leuven to apply the scientific insights in petroleum exploration. During a post-doctoral stay at the Institut Français du Pétrole (IFP, France) and at the Instituto Mexicano del Petróleo (IMP, Mexico) she trained new skills in basin dynamics, geological modelling and petroleum geology. The 8 years of experience following her master degree (PhD & postdoc) formed a good base for applied research and consultancy work at the Flemish Institute for Technological Research (VITO), where she worked for 7 years on CCS, gas storage, hydrocarbon exploration, geothermal energy and minewater applications. For the last 6 years she has been working for the Flemish administration on themes concerning the deep subsurface. After the academic and industrial experience, the gathered expertise is now put into service for policy, regulations and public research & dissemination.

Geomanifestation hide-and-seek
Helga’s favourite geomanifestation appeared during coal mining when a surprise inflow of hot saline water came out from a fault. The inflow was so large that miners had to build a dam to block it. Helga: “Nobody was aware of the geothermal source hidden there along the fault. We probably would never have known its existence if the artificial situation of making voids and pumping out the water for mining the coal had not taken place. The source was always there, but as the water initially flowed upwards along the fault and then flowed out into aquifers where it mixed with cold sweet water, its signature faded out.”. In 2008, years after the mines closed and flooded, disguising the geomanifestation once again, a borehole drilled in the area revealed a weak thermal and geochemical anomaly. With the information from old mine archives and new hydrological and geochemical modelling, the source was rediscovered.

Seeing mines as complex 3D puzzles and having worked in minewater projects in Heerlen (ancient coal mines in the Netherlands) and Yellowknife (ancient gold mines in Canada), Helga enjoys the challenge of understanding what happens underground once mines get flooded. Helga: “A lot of expertise and passion comes together here: predict fluid flow, set up atypical geomodels, predict changes in temperature and composition,… It is close to story-telling, giving a meaning, finding solutions, and these are things that motivate me.”

It’s all about the faults
Working either as an academic researcher, consultant or policy advisor, Helga always comes back to faults. Her research is focussed on understanding better the role of faults since they are involved in nearly all subsurface applications such as hydrocarbon exploitation, CCS, geothermal energy, gas storage, among others. Helga: ”We need to understand the role of faults more, because we want to predict seismic risks, gas or pollutants leakage, pressure disturbances, but we also want to know better the potential for georesources such as mineral ores or hot water occurring along faults.”. The policy needs are a main driver for her work, considering that understanding the rocks below our feet is the basis for many crucial steps such as good permitting regulations, correct inspection & maintenance, and subsurface spatial planning. Helga also highlights the alignment between her research and interests with GeoConnect³d’s aim to investigate which controls can be found when combining faults and geomanifestations.

From project conception to data collection
Helga was involved in the conception of GeoConnect³d at the earliest phase of GeoERA, when all partners were brainstorming on what ideas to develop. She proposed to work on faults in a cross-border context and to zoom in on geomanifestations with a view on subsurface policy and spatial planning. And GeoConnect³d almost had another name. Helga: “I proposed the working title ‘NoOnesFault’, because geohazards often can be related to the presence of a fault that was either not identified initially or that was wrongly regarded as ‘minor’, ‘dead’ or ‘non-conductive’.”. Today, she summarises the idea behind GeoConnect³d as an effort to combine insights from different domains of geology (raw materials, energy and groundwater), and to integrate several geodisciplines across national borders. Helga: “We hope to learn and to inspire future research.”.

She is currently collecting data on geomanifestations over the whole R2R project area. Helga: “I look into springs with anomalous temperature or geochemistry, to gas occurrences, volcanic centres and seismicity. I try to recognise patterns in the occurrences and investigate whether they might relate to geological structures. As a policy maker, I also watch over the policy relevance of what we do.”.

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