Maria A. Nikolinakou is currently a Research Associate at the Bureau of Economic Geology, Jackson School of Geosciences, The University of Texas at Austin, where she works for the Applied Geodynamics Laboratory (AGL) and UT GeoFluids consortia. Nikolinakou is a Civil/Geotechnical Engineer who received her Ph.D. in Theoretical Soil Mechanics from MIT in 2008, her M.Sc. in Geotechnical Engineering from MIT, and a Civil Engineering diploma from the National Technical University of Athens. Before joining the Jackson School, she worked for Shell Exploration and Production, researching reservoir geomechanics. She studies geomechanical stress and pressure in evolving geologic systems, focusing on salt basins, and specializes in geomechanical pore-pressure prediction in exploration settings. Nikolinakou is the recipient of the 2015 Tinker Family BEG Publication Award and has been invited as an early-career keynote speaker to rock mechanics and geologic conferences. She serves as a board member for the American Rock Mechanics Association, is president of the MIT Alumni Club of Austin and San Antonio, and promotes STEM education.
What are your current research activities?
We study the poromechanical behavior of mudrocks in complex geologic systems, for example in salt basins or thrust belts. We use finite-element geomechanical models that couple sedimentation, porous fluid flow, and salt flow. We model sediments that are porous elastoplastic materials. Our evolutionary numerical models allow us to predict how stress, pressure, and strength of mudrocks change with the evolution of the geologic system.
What excites you the most about your current research?
I work at the interface of geotechnical engineering, geology, and exploration sciences. In the past, the contribution of geotechnical engineering to energy exploration mostly focused on platforms or structures on the seafloor. We now apply geotechnical and poromechanical principles to a much larger scale and greater depths. Our interdisciplinary research helps advance our fundamental understanding of the interaction between pressure, stress, and deformation in geologic systems. And from a practical point of view, our research provides a technical approach that can address many geologic systems where large strains, pore fluids, and sedimentation interact.
What is the desired outcome of your research?
Our research goals are twofold: (1) to understand stress and pressure around salt, and ultimately to relate present-day salt geometries with a good estimate of exit stress and pressure; and (2) to improve our understanding of Earth processes related to salt systems. Our research is directly connected to borehole stability and can help improve the safety of drilling operations as well as minimize their environmental impact.
What do you need in order to make your research efforts more successful?
Field measurements are on the top of my wish list, because numerical predictions have limited value if the input calibration is not realistic. I would also like to collaborate with industry partners on specific case studies in order to test our pressure-prediction workflows and also to gain a better understanding of the practical challenges of the systems we are modeling.
What are your latest papers/publications, and what is most exciting to you about them?
Nikolinakou, M. A., Heidari, M., Hudec, M. R., and Flemings, P. B., 2016, Initiation and growth of salt diapirs in tectonically stable settings: upbuilding and megaflaps: American Association of Petroleum Geologists Bulletin, doi:10.1306/09021615245.
This paper challenges long-standing assumptions about the evolution of salt systems and encourages a fresh look at piercement models for salt diapir initiation and growth.
Nikolinakou, M. A., Flemings, P. B., and Hudec, M. R., 2016, Modeling of shales in salt-hydrocarbon systems: Rock Mechanics and Rock Engineering, v. 49, p. 699–705, doi:10.1007/s00603-015-0863-2.
This paper summarizes our first evolutionary modeling of shales and was invited to be a junior keynote presentation at the Shale Symposium during ISRM 2015.
Heidari, M., Nikolinakou, M. A., Hudec, M. R., and Flemings, P. B., 2016, Geomechanical analysis of a welding salt layer and its effects on adjacent sediments: Tectonophysics, v. 683, p. 172–181, doi:10.1016/j.tecto.2016.06.027.
This paper offers the first published geomechanical study of salt welds; it studies stress, deformation, and failure associated with source-layer welding and highlights the importance of these welds for the exploration, characterization, and production of nearby reservoirs.
Who will benefit from your latest paper or publication?
Our geomechanical study of megaflaps (AAPG Bulletin 2016) offers a new perspective on the state of stress and failure of upturned layers near salt; therefore, it can help exploration companies evaluate the trap integrity of reservoirs near salt and plan safe and economic well trajectories.
What was your most exciting past paper or publication, and why?
Nikolinakou, M. A., Flemings, P. B., and Hudec, M. R., 2014, Modeling stress evolution around a rising salt diapir: Journal of Marine and Petroleum Geology, v. 51, p. 230–238, doi: 10.1016/j.marpetgeo.2014.07.002.
This is the first published study of stress and deformation of mudrocks in evolving salt systems. It models sediments as porous elastoplastic materials and shows that the stress state near salt is not uniaxial and that shear stresses are higher than estimated by static models.
Who are the types of research partners you are seeking? What are the desired relationships, expertise, or skills that could be brought in to benefit your research?
I seek to improve our mechanical understanding of geologic systems, to study and model the behavior of mudrocks at large depths, and to study the mechanical behavior inside a deforming salt body. I also seek industry research partners with field data to test our pressure-prediction workflows and improve input to our models.
What have been recent successes associated with your research?
We have one U.S. patent pending on pore-pressure prediction based on seismic velocities coupled with geomechanical modeling (PCT/US16/18971). I was recently invited as an early- career keynote speaker at the 2017 U.S. Rock Mechanics and Geomechanics symposium.
What is the geographic location of your research?
We have mostly focused on salt systems in the Gulf of Mexico, but recent projects include salt basins in other parts of the world.