Someday, the smallest technology on the planet could be the biggest news in the energy industry.
Nanotechnology involves engineering at the scale of atoms and molecules.
“Nano” denotes a billionth, so a nanometer is one-billionth of a meter, or one-millionth of a millimeter.
A benzyne molecule is about a nanometer wide.
A human hair is typically described as about 80,000 nanometers wide.
Researchers have studied the possibilities of practical nano-scale science for 25 years, with special emphasis on the properties of materials at that scale.
Today, nanotech involves many disciplines, including (but not limited to):
- Chemical engineering.
- Materials science.
- Applied physics.
- Electrical engineering.
- Mechanical engineering.
It’s a Small World
Brian Towler is head of the Chemical and Petroleum Engineering Department at the University of Wyoming in Laramie. The university conducts nanoscience research through grants from the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Department of Energy and Wyoming’s enhanced oil recovery program, he said.
In a recent issue of the “International Journal of Nanotechnology,” Towler and co-author Saeid Mokhatab theorized that nanotech could revolutionize the natural gas industry, from production to processing to pollution reduction.
“The gas industry represents a major prospect for substantial, near-term adoption of nanoscale technologies with sustained benefits,” Mokhatab and Towler wrote.
“Depending on the application, nanomaterials are incorporated into a wide variety of hydrocarbon extraction, gas separations, solid-state gas sensors for air pollution monitoring, nanoadsorbent materials for environmental separations and corrosion inhibitors that are used in a broad range of gas industry markets,” they added. According to Towler, nanotech research has advanced far enough to begin producing practical applications. “The payoff is starting to come,” Towler said.
“We will see significant advances and adoption of this technology in the next three to five years,” he predicted.
Looking Into the Future
Possible nanotech breakthroughs for the oil and gas industry could show up in:
- Enhanced materials
Inclusion of nanoparticles may lead to more durable and effective drilling components, lighter and sturdier offshore platforms and a variety of corrosion-resistant materials, among other benefits.
- New separators and nanomembranes
Stable and lightweight membranes could be used to filter impurities from heavy oil and tight gas, as well as in environmental applications.
“I’m very excited about the materials we’re developing for better membranes and adsorbents for separations,” Towler said.
“There are particular separation technologies that will be extremely useful – not only for the exploration and production industry, but also for the carbon-capture issue,” he added.
- Advanced fluid additives
Nano-scale additives might be used in everything from improved drilling fluids to more efficient and environmentally friendly fuels.
- Sensors and imaging agents
The special electrical and magnetic properties of nanomaterials make them well-suited for use as injected sensors and contrast agents.
Because they can withstand high temperature and pressure, nano-scale sensors could be especially useful for characterizing deep reservoirs.
Going for the (Cleaner) Burn
Alicia Jackson studied nanotech at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She’s now a legislative fellow for the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources in Washington, D.C.
“The main thing about nanotechnology is the incredible amount of surface area you have on each nanoparticle, or whatever you’re using,” she said. Much of current nano-scale research aims for applications in biology and medicine.
“We did a lot of work looking at how we could layer nanoparticles to act as artificial photosynthetic systems,” Jackson recalled.
“We also were tagging nanoparticles with molecules to search out tumor cells,” she said.
But today’s high oil and gas prices and growing energy demand, with projections for even higher demand in the future, have led nanotech researchers to look for possible uses in petroleum production, refining processes and fuels.
“The whole idea of putting nanoparticles into fuels to make them more efficient, or to burn cleaner, that’s definitely something people are working on,” Jackson noted.
She cited work done by Oxonica, an international nanomaterials group with headquarters near Oxford, England.
The company’s energy division has developed ENVIROX™, a fuel-carried catalyst for diesel. According to Oxonica, ENVIROX saves fuel, catalytically removes engine deposits and reduces harmful emissions.
Because the additive enters the combustion chamber premixed with diesel, it changes the way the fuel burns, enhances efficiency and helps reduce unburned hydrocarbon and other waste products, Oxonica said.
Engineered nanoparticles also could improve the effectiveness of drilling mud and frac fluids. It’s difficult to imagine an area of the industry that wouldn’t benefit from nanotech advances.
“We’re developing better sensors for detecting natural gas leaks and hydrogen sulfide detection and that sort of thing,” Towler said.
“I think we can develop better lost-circulation materials with nanotechnology. We can create better particles that go into the formation. ”