Scientists at Sandia National Labs studying unexpected earthquakes

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M.- Energy exploration can lead to unexpected earthquakes, sometimes even swarms of them.

The threat is the reason scientists over at Sandia National Labs are working to help lower the risk.

"Once we know the existence of hidden faults, we may be able to develop mitigation strategies," said geoscientist Hongkyu Yoon.

One of their methods is 3-D printing rocks, using some advanced multi-physics computer modeling.

"We built a large scale multi-physics computer model including fluid and rock properties measured from field and laboratory tests that can show how stress changes," said geoscientist Kyung Won Chang.

The 3-D rocks are made of calcium sulfate powder and water.

They are trying to study how pressure and stress can move through rocks and to fault lines, some of which are even hidden.

With the 3-D printed rocks, they’re crushing them to hear the sound of different types of fault failures. While the rock is being crushed, the sound waves are signs of rapid micro-cracks.

The scientists then combine the sound data with machine learning techniques to detect small seismic events.

The end goal is to create a map of seismic potential for induced earthquakes to help provide some guidelines for regulators or operators for energy exploration in the future.