Nanotechnology – A Wind of Change – in Oil and Gas Industry!

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Unless, revolutionary new sources of energy have been industrialized, yet it appears that we are going to be reliant on hydrocarbons for the foreseeable future. Even in the most optimistic and realistic situation  the existing sources of energy like wind, water, solar and geothermal will only make up 15% to 20% of our total energy by 2035.

A Look in the Direction of Past

Recovery Mechanism

Even after all of the EOR and IOR steps have been taken, it is still not uncommon for 60 – 70% of the original oil to be left in the reservoir. So, if you think about that, there are billions of barrels of discovered oil that we’re leaving in place.

The U.S. Department of Energy did a study back in 2007 that estimated that there are at least 60 billion barrels of oil remaining in the Permian Basin, which is on the border of west Texas and New Mexico. Remember, these aren’t undiscovered oil fields, or deep water fields, or unconventional oil fields. This is oil that’s left behind in existing fields with existing infrastructure.

Why bulk of the Oil remains unrecoverable?

Answer to this question is capillary forces that bind the oil molecules to the rocks. One can simply demonstrate this concept, take a sponge and fill it full of water. Squeeze it out into a glass and see how much water was absorbed. Now soak the sponge again, and try sucking out the water in the sponge with a straw. It’s much harder, isn’t it? That’s analogous to what we’re trying to do in an oil field, except that oil also adheres to the pores in our rock sponge.

So at this point, knowing that there are billions of barrels of remaining oil in place, there is a need for new technologies which can help improve production from the reservoir and develop new fields. Nanotechnology offers promising solution for the same. Nanotechnology – the study of science of materials at nano-scale – shows great promise for meeting challenges involved in understanding and utilizing the harder-to-reach oil and gas reservoirs of today.

Let’s talk about some basics. What is nanotechnology?

The prefix nano, derived from the Latin word nanus for dwarf, means something very small. When we’re using it in metric terms, a nanometer is one-billionth of a meter. Think about that! Take a strand of hair and put at it between your fingers. The width of that hair is 100,000 nanometers. A nanometer is about how much your fingernail grows every second. So a nanometer is really small.

Why is Oil Industry interested in Nanotechnology?

The incredibly small size of the nano-scale materials creates opportunities for them to be injected into oil and gas reservoirs. Geoscientists have analyzed enough of the oil-bearing sandstones to establish that the pore throat openings commonly range between 100 and 10,000 nanometers in width. That’s large enough for fluids like water, brines, and oil and gas to flow through relatively freely. So if we could put nano-scale tracers or sensors down a hole, they would be small enough to flow through these pores, and we could gain a bunch of valuable information about the rock and the fluid environment where the oil and gas is found.

How does nano-scale material act?

Nano-particles are the nano-sized materials in the range of 1-100 nm. Nano-particles have high specific surface area and unique properties, such as high adsorption potential and heat conductivity. These particles when mixed with base fluids, also called as nano-fluids, and used for several application related to upstream oil and gas industry, help improve the performance of several processes.

Nano-scale sensors – A Powerful Tool

Right now, doctors are working to put nano-sensors into the human body to determine where cancer cells might be and here, we’re looking into the Earth body and we’re putting nano-sensors down hole. What the nano-scale sensors will give us is a clearer vision, more data, so we can make smarter interpretations. And with a better idea of what’s going on underground we’ll be able to recover more hydrocarbons. That’s going to be huge for the industry and the world.

Application of Nano-technology

  • It is being used in Hydraulic fracturing, where the growing number of zones typically fractured pushes the performance limits of fracing applications
  • It can increase the strength to weight ratio of tubular, and prevent abrasion and corrosion of equipment with coatings and alloys developed from nanotechnology
  • It can also be used to address the challenges of reservoir monitoring

Conclusion

What’s often not appreciated by the public is how much oil is left behind in the oil fields, nano-science and nanotechnology may enable us to sense remotely and directly the bypassed oil and gas that we could never see or recover before. And with the sensors we’re developing to provide us with more information, we’ll be able to recover even more oil and gas that right now is being abandoned and left in the ground. It can also help delay peak oil.

To maintain our quality of life, we’re going to continue to need affordable, safe and secure energy. Nano is one of the new revolutions in technology that will make that happen.

However, oil and gas companies also must be willing to invest in research and development into new technologies. “We make progress in R&D, but then we eat our own young,” said Matt Bell, President and CEO of GEO-Dynamics, a Millsap, Texas-based developer of perforating technologies. “We need entrepreneurs who are willing to invest and get nanotechnology from the research institutes to commercial application.”

Photo Courtesy: Google Images

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About author

Mehwish Khanam

I am Final Year Student of Petroleum & Gas Engineering at University of Engineering & Technology Lahore and Ambassador of YoungPetro in Pakistan.

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