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SMALL BUT MIGHTY

Nanotechnology has a big role in energy research.

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BY SEAN MURPHY, BUREAU OF ECONOMIC GEOLOGY THE UNIVERSITY OF TEXAS AT AUSTIN
n energy research, as well as in other fields of scientific inquiry, researchers are always on the lookout for the “next big thing.” Ironically, the next big thing in energy research is not big at all. In fact, it’s infinitesimally small. It is so small, in fact, that its unit of measurement, a nanometer, is just one-billionth of a meter. To put that in perspective, it is equivalent to the thickness of a single drop of water spread equally over a square meter or, more specifically, it’s the length of 3½ gold atoms laid end to end. This so-called “nanorealm” is so small and unexplored that it has never been seriously considered by most petroleum engineers, geophysicists, geologists, or geochemists. But, as

John Ullo at Schlumberger’s Doll Research Center in Boston, Mass., recently suggested, “… the petroleum industry has been focused on characterizing and understanding the oil reservoir macro and micro worlds over the last century, but with the need to improve the recovery from conventional hydrocarbon resources and to develop unconventional sources, the industry now must understand where much of the remaining hydrocarbons are trapped — at the nano scale. This could very well be the beginning of a new field of geosciences.” One of the most promising and comprehensive research programs in the field of nanotechnology is being conducted by the Advanced Energy Consortium (AEC). AEC, which officially opened its doors Jan. 1, 2008, is managed by the Bureau of Economic Geology (BEG) at the University of Texas at Austin and comprises some of the world’s most successful oil and gas companies and industry service companies.

January 2009

E&P 2009 R&D Report | www.EPmag.com

. These single-molecule vehicles measure just 4 x 3 nanometers and have four buckyball wheels connected to four independently rotating axles and an organic chemical chassis. and sophisticated modeling and simulation technologies to improve the understanding of oil and gas reservoirs. geologists.. Oilfield reservoirs will require different designs.” (Image courtesy of T. In fact. thus helping to “illuminate” the reservoir. (Images courtesy of AEC) This so-called “nanorealm” is so small and unexplored that it has never been seriously considered by most petroleum engineers. Such environments may be found in reservoirs at depths of www.EPmag. TOP IMAGE–Figure 1. Marathon Oil Corp. ConocoPhillips. geophysicists. What is driving this research? Increasing world energy demand coupled with the difficulty in finding and accessing trapped oil are the driving forces behind AEC’s nanotechnology research. One main goal is to develop subsurface microand nanosensors that can be injected into oil and gas well bores. however. and the small bureau-led team includes Jay Kipper. Tour (Rice University. Tinker is director of the AEC. perhaps “nano-submarines. This remaining oil in place is not easy to find or remove..com | E&P 2009 R&D Report January 2009 . control-source electromagnetic (CSEM). Despite current use of 3-D and 4-D seismic detection. The scale of the problem ranges from kilometers to nanometers. or geochemists. collaborating with BEG. and Total. Sasaki/Rice University) Scott W.EXPLORATION AEC-funded researcher James M.. Data collected would enable researchers to better characterize their reservoirs to more efficiently exploit these hydrocarbon resources. advanced downhole electronics. Even more problematic is the need to use these new nanotechnologies in complex and harsh operating environments. Schlumberger. LEFT – In an October 2005 paper in the journal Nano Letters. AEC focuses exclusively on applying nanoscale technologies to exploration for and production of oil and gas from reservoirs. The Smalley Institute for Nanoscale Science and Technology at Rice University. with the exception of seismic and CSEM. BOTTOM IMAGE–Figure 2. Halliburton Energy Services Inc. Shell. Smalley Institute for Nanoscale Science and Technology) plans to build first-generation nanobots (nano-sized entities that can gather and display information) suitable for oilfield application. Occidental Oil and Gas. In 2006 the US Department of Energy reported that approximately 67% of all discovered US oil remains in place. Current consortium members include BP America Inc. serves as a key technical partner. these techniques are still lacking in resolution or deep penetration into reservoir lithologies. and Howard Schmidt. Tour and Rice collaborator Kevin Kelly described the synthesis and movement of nanocars. Baker Hughes Inc. most sensing technologies penetrate and provide information about the reservoir only inches from the well bore. Locating and extracting the remaining petroleum – billions of barrels of potentially available supply – is AEC’s goal. Sean Murphy. These sensors would have the ability to migrate out of the well bores and through pores of the surrounding geological structure to collect data about the physical characteristics of hydrocarbon reservoirs. A study of reservoir properties as well as sensor properties is necessary to develop nanoscale sensors. Paul Ching. estimating that perhaps one-quarter of this oil can be recovered using conventional recovery techniques.

and nanotube structures. The teams’ aims are to synthesize custom paramagnetic nanoparticles that will adsorb preferentially to the oil/water interface and that can be detected remotely. AEC and its members started the year by hosting a number of workshops. complex mixtures of oily. • Passive or nanoscale material sensors. medical imaging. springing from a tiny but mighty source. a much broader portfolio of AEC-funded research projects will commence in early 2009. The consortium is convinced that building on research that’s ongoing in smart dust. Three different engineering departmental teams are working together. As a result. and nanotechnologists together with experts from the oil and gas industry to investigate how existing technologies and research might be employed to better characterize reservoirs and aid in recovery efforts. additional proposals are currently under review. and nanoexplosive materials. 1616 S. If successful. chemotactic micro.000 psi. • Professor Tom Milner and his students in biomedical engineering are studying particle responses to highenergy electromagnetic fields. In addition. A list of promising technologies includes nanoallomorphs of carbon. sensor materials. Conventional microelectronic sensors could not survive under these conditions. waxy. or providing a detailed image of. the oil or gas reservoir. and • Paramagnetic nano contrast agents. • Nanoelectromechanical system sensors. Examples of pore types in carbonate rocks thousands of feet. • Microelectromechanical system sensors. The practical outcome of this revolution. briny. If successful. Voss. magnetic nanoparticles. with operating temperatures of 480ºF (250°C) or more and pressures of up to 15. application of nano. it exemplifies the interdisciplinary collaboration that will be necessary to successfully develop nanoscale solutions for reservoir-size problems.and micro-scale technologies to oil and gas exploration and production could revolutionize the understanding of oil and gas reservoirs. Fax (713) 840-8585 . Although AEC has laid a solid foundation for success in nanotechnology research.EXPLORATION TOP IMAGE–Figure 3. 1000. In addition. will be greater and more efficient recovery of the substantial hydrocarbon energy resources. generated from a mid-2008 RFP. BOTTOM IMAGE–Figure 4. Houston. The consortium is currently funding a number of applied research projects at universities. and acidic fluids of two and three phases are often found in these reservoirs. Ste. Dr. putting electronics. • Professor Keith Johnston is managing a chemical engineering department team that is synthesizing iron-oxide nanoparticles with special surface coatings to control adsorption at the oil/water interface. ◗ Copyright. An example of AEC-funded research that is already starting to take shape can be found on the campus of the University of Texas at Austin. let alone operate and communicate. bringing the unique expertise of each to the project: • Principal investigator (PI) Chun Huh and co-PI Steve Bryant manage a group of students in petroleum and geosystems engineering who are investigating the aqueous transport of paramagnetic nanoparticles through different reservoir rocks and their adsorption on oil/water menisci in the rock. and nanofluidics fields could lead to breakthroughs in illuminating. including: • Fundamental studies of nanomaterial behavior in fluidic reservoir environments. this novel sensing technique could determine fluid saturations in the reservoir rock with much greater penetration than magnetic resonant imaging or nuclear magnetic resonance. Hart Energy Publishing. labs. Examples of pore types in clastic rocks. TX 77057 USA (713)260-6400. Masa Prodanovic is developing a theoretical model that links laboratory measurements to field-scale observations. and private industrial facilities around the world that are developing functional technologies.