Nanotech researchers are doing something you might not expect.
They’re thinking bigger these days.
And they’re targeting new applications for the oil and gas industry.
The Advanced Energy Consortium (AEC) of the Bureau of Economic Geology at the University of Texas-Austin leads the way in nanotechnology research for the oil and gas industry.
One thing that has researchers excited is the abundance of possible applications for nanotech in exploration and production, said AEC project manager Mohsen Ahmadian.
“You could apply nanotechnology to a lot of different things,” he said. “Drilling muds, fluids, lubricants, drill bit enhancement. A lot of those things are already being applied in the industry.”
Bigger thinking also has grown out of the rapid development of nanotechnology as a field.
Ahmadian said the number of scientific papers and patents related to nanotech has increased exponentially in recent years. He’s also seen more and more interest from the industry.
“Now our meetings are attended by more than 250 people at a time – even the Society of Petroleum Engineers has sessions on nanotechnology,” he said.
Still, in scientific terms, nanotech remains almost a brand-new field. Research is progressing as demand builds in the industry for new and effective applications – for increased oil production, for instance.
“I wouldn’t say we are very far away from needing this technology,” Ahmadian said. But it’s really in its infancy.”
Ahmadian also said some of AEC’s projects already are moving into the practical testing stage. To understand what new nanotech applications might be arriving first, you need to understand what’s going on in nanotech research.
AEC has been working in the area for five years, with most of its research projects really getting off the ground about four years ago, Ahmadian said. The program has spent about $40 million to date.
“Our initial research was explorational in nature. We would consider anything anyone proposed to us,” he said.
But it became apparent that not all concepts were feasible as applications for oil and gas. Some simply would not work in the harsh environment of the reservoir, Ahmadian noted.
He described four of the current areas for research thrust at AEC:
In Ahmadian’s words, “How do we stabilize a nanoparticle in the reservoir?”
“This is basically taking some ideas from biomedical applications,” he explained.
“We are trying to develop some nanoparticles that have acoustic or electromagnetic properties,” he said. “And in electromagnetic, there are several areas that could be explored.”
“This is a top-down approach using semiconductor fabrication techniques,” Ahmadian said. “It could potentially log the location of the particle as it travels through the reservoir.”
“For this we are making sensors from the bottom up,” he said, “using chemistry instead of using the semiconductor techniques.”
Ahmadian said a basic concept is “to co-inject a fluid with nanomaterials that have some kind of contrast signals.”
Getting nanoparticles or other nanomaterials into the wellbore and reservoir could have a number of payoffs. Ahmadian cited the example of waterfloods, where nanosensors could help operators understand where and when liquid is escaping into high permeability rock.
“If we know where the fluids are, we can try to divert them away from those high-perm areas,” he said.
Development of unconventional resources also could see nanotech applications, with proppant movement and effectiveness and even gas flows measured at the nanoscale.
For those kinds of applications to work, “you need to have certain packaging, certain mobility targeting,” Ahmadian added. “You have to have a reported way to distinguish what happened at location X compared to location Y.”
It’s not easy creating exactly the right nanoparticle with exactly the right characteristics, and then making it do exactly what you want.
“There are a lot of hurdles we need to go through to make something really exotic,” Ahmadian said. He called the challenges “a difficult problem.”
“I think the sensor concepts are a lot more complicated than some of the other concepts,” he said.
Just Getting Started
AEC already has funded almost 40 projects. It has several large-company industry sponsors and holds regular project reviews.
“This is the brainchild of (BEG director and past AAPG president) Scott Tinker,” Ahmadian said. “We basically brought together several of the largest oil companies to think about future technologies, primarily looking at bypassed oil.”
Today, AEC’s nanomaterial sensor projects include smart tracers, reservoir reporters, payload delivery systems and options for clocking and improving enhanced oil recovery.
“Our ideas are really fancy,” Ahmadian said. But he noted that some of the most practical concepts are growing out of the fanciest ideas.
“One thing that’s really nice at AEC is that we pride ourselves on developing a new science,” he said.
How much impact could nanotechnology have?
Think semiconductor chips and computers.
“This is pretty cutting edge,” Ahmadian said. “This is sort of like where the semiconductor industry was 50 years or 60 years ago.”