The Arrival of Superman: Improving Enhanced Oil Recovery with Nanotechnology

enhanced oil recovery
Applying nanotechnology and engineering principles to improve enhanced oil recovery can both improve economics and the environment.
Image Source: Flickr user Will Folsom

When consumers think of oil recovery, they often exclusively think of the first phase known as primary recovery. During this step, the natural pressure of the oil reservoir or gravity is used to “drive oil into the wellbore”1 which, when combined with airlift technologies, such as pumps, transports the oil to the surface. Interestingly, this process recovers only 10 percent of a reservoir’s original oil content. Secondary and tertiary (or enhanced oil recovery) methods are used to significantly enhance the amount of original oil extracted from a given reservoir.2

Of particular interest for oil and gas companies is the use of enhanced oil recovery techniques and the most popular techniques used in enhanced oil recovery are gas injection, thermal injection, and chemical injection. Gas injection techniques currently account for 60 percent of enhanced oil recovery production in the U.S. However, next generation tools in the form of novel particles, materials and techniques inspired by nanotechnology for enhanced oil recovery could be developed as alternatives to today’s method and novel software programs can assist in this discovery process.

Moving Forward with Nanotechnology

Focusing now on specific nanotechnological innovations, investing in the development of novel nanocoatings for the tools used in enhanced oil recovery could improve economic performance by increasing the amount of usable oil collected during various processes. For example, production wells which capture oil from within rocks could be coated with nanoparticles that enhance the affinity for oil for the surfaces that interact with the extracted oil. Additionally, nanocoatings that render machines anti-wear and anti-corrosive could be created for enhanced oil recovery3. In particular, these coatings would extend the life of machinery (saving the costs of replacing expensive machinery) while also decreasing potential oil loss through a reduction of frictional and thermal interactions.

Additionally, with gas injection techniques among the most popular methods for enhanced oil recovery, nanoparticles injected with gasses, such as CO2, can also improve the oil recovery process. According to a video produced by Atticus Digital4, when CO2 mixes with oil inside the wellbore, the oil expands, which reduces its viscosity and enables it to flow more easily toward the production well. One could thus imagine injecting novel chemicals with CO2 to enhance oil expansion in order to recover more oil.

New technological materials could also be used to improve the “environmental friendly” nature of enhanced oil recovery. For instance, during enhanced oil recovery, the CO2 used to enhance oil collection can become trapped in the rocks permanently, undergo CO2 dissolution or CO2 mineralization. Other chemicals could then be injected into empty wellbores to promote CO2 mineralization to ensure that it does not somehow leak into the environment.  As noted in the Symposium on Role of EOR in Accelerating Deployment of CCS, “CO2 that migrates out of a pattern may be produced from non-project wells and [may not be] recycled,” while “numerous well penetrations of the confining system create potential flaws that…could allow CO2 to leak slowly over long periods of rates…”5

From conceptualization to realization

The ideas discussed above (and nanotechnological innovations in general) could potentially assist oil and gas companies in improving their enhanced oil recovery techniques; however, these improvements ultimately require a significant investment in research. Luckily, the software to facilitate the progression of this research has already been developed. With Materials Studio, oil and gas companies can uncover the characteristics of catalysts (for example) that might be co-injected with CO2 to promote the extraction of oil from deep within rocks. Materials Studio software also enables researchers to carefully investigate and modify particles and materials before investing large sums of money on a concept. Structures and models can then be imported into an electronic laboratory notebook (ELN), such as the BIOVIA Notebook, to improve organization and efficiency by enabling all other researchers within a group to access important data. If you are interested in how the Materials Studio software can assist your own industry in investigating and predicting the behavior of various materials such as polymers, carbon nanotubes and silica gel (among many more), please contact us today.

  1. “Enhanced Oil Recovery,” http://energy.gov/fe/science-innovation/oil-gas-research/enhanced-oil-recovery
  2. “Enhanced oil recovery,” July 9, 2015, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Enhanced_oil_recovery
  3. “Nanotechnology in the Oil and Gas Industry,” research.che.tamu.edu/…/nanotechnology/S4_Gas&Oil%20Industryl.ppt
  4. “Enhanced Oil Recovery,” March 2, 2012, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=azLVjYij5U4
  5. “EOR as SEquestration-Geoscience Perspective,” https://mitei.mit.edu/system/files/hovorka.pdf

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