Department of Materials


23 Oct 2018

Dr Helen Willcock Gains National Recognition for Research

Helen W x 670

In October this year, Dr Helen Willcock, (centre of above photograph), Lecturer in Polymer Science in the Department of Materials at Loughborough University, gained national recognition for her work on  ‘Project Pelican’, done in collaboration with BP. 

In 2010 she was the lead Research Associate who helped to write the initial proposal for the project under the supervision of Prof O’Reilly at the University of Warwick., Dr Willcock was then the primary researcher on this project for 4 years before moving to Loughborough to begin her own research group.

Project Pelican started as a collaboration between BP and the O'Reilly Group (now at the University of Birmingham) in 2010, following a BP study session organised by the then BP Chief Chemist, Vernon C. Gibson.

BP was interested in developing polymer particles to reversibly block high permeability zones in oil reservoirs, to give enhanced oil recovery (EOR). The team utilised reversible addition fragmentation chain transfer (RAFT) to synthesise and screen a range of thermo-responsive zwitterionic polymers.

Two years into the project, application tests under porous flow (sand-pack tests) were required to test the technology and KAT Ltd joined the team to develop these tests. The next four years successfully proved the concept, which now has 1 granted patent and 3 pending patents.

BP expanded its team to include support from the group technology business development team and the legal team. Although conventional RAFT synthesis contributed much understanding to the project, the technique was not suitable for application but led to a joint paper in Polymer Chemistry 2014, 5, 1023-1030.

In 2014 a key breakthrough in the project was realised when a 2-stage production process was developed by the team. This allowed the tuning of the response temperature of the particle to be simply adjusted. This has led to the likely realisation of a commercially viable manufacturing route.

The current stage of the project is moving towards manufacture on the tonne-scale and a field trial.

Dr Willcock initiated related work with the University of Nottingham on an alternative production method, that whilst not being taken forward for the large-scale production, led to an additional paper in Polymer Chemistry, 2017, 8, 4557-4564.

Dr Willcock and the Project Pelican Team received the Industry-Academia Collaboration Award for the research they conducted.  This award is presented by the Royal Society of Chemistry.

The Industry-Academia Collaboration Award recognises outstanding examples of teamwork in promoting innovation through industry-academia partnerships.

For further information in respect of this award, please follow this link.

Dr Willcock stated:  

“I am really pleased to be part of the team that the RSC has chosen to recognise with this award. My thanks go to Emma Chapman (BP) and Rachel O’Reilly (University of Birmingham), Dr Neil Chilcott and Dr James Cowan (KAT) for working so closely with me over the 4 years that I was part of the project and enabling this project to succeed so quickly. Although I have now left the team to lead my own research group here at Loughborough University, I am pleased to be able to continue to work in collaboration with BP who continue to support my research, and I am extremely excited to see the continued success of Project Pelican.”

The Department of Materials offers their congratulations to Helen on receiving this prestigious award.