Recent production of inexpensive, natural hydrogels can make oil drilling process less expensive. Source: Wikimedia User Antandrus 

With costs up to $7 million to dig a single well1, oil drilling is an extremely expensive enterprise. New ways to reduce costs while increasing efficiency are highly sought after. Now, thanks to researchers at Stanford University, a new inexpensive hydrogel has been discovered2 that has potential application as a lubricant for the oil drilling process. Using innovative software to explore the many applications and formulations of this hydrogel will help researchers in the oil industry discover new ways to save money and speed up production.   

Inexpensive hydrogels

Hydrogels are gel-like networks of cross-linked polymers that can absorb and hold large quantities of water. Because of the ability of hydrogels to absorb and retain water, they have a wide number of uses as lubricants, drug delivery systems, healing hydrogel bandages, cleaning pipes, cosmetic gels and so on.

Most hydrogels used currently are made up of toxic synthetic polymers, which have a high manufacturing cost, thus limiting their commercial applications. The researchers at Stanford, however, have discovered how to make “a new generation of hydrogels based on abundant natural materials.”3

The new hydrogels have two relatively common and inexpensive natural ingredients. A stable hydrogel is formed by mixing the ingredients and they can be formulated to cover a lot of mechanical properties.The two ingredients are:

  1. Cellulose polymer, which is derived from natural sources such as wood chips and agricultural waste
  2. Colloidal silica, a liquid suspension of nanoscale particles derived from sand

The researchers believe that by altering the formulations, they can tune the hydrogel so it can possess an enormous range of mechanical properties. They believe that this whole continuum of gel states can be useful for a host of different applications, including:

  • Lubricants for oil and water drilling operations
  • Clean pipes, removing all impurities and contaminants
  • Destroy microbial films that cause contamination
  • Act as fire retardants4

With a range of possible applications, innovative software can help speed up the formulation development process. By pinpointing candidates that will be the most successful during the manufacturing process, researchers can hope to discover more inexpensive, environmentally safe alternatives to current  synthetic hydrogels. The software can help optimize formulations at the root level, thus saving time, labor and cost.

Hydrogel Formulations as Lubricants in Oil Drilling Operations

Lubricants form an important part of the whole oil drilling process. A good lubricant can help in reducing the friction coefficient and lowering torque, as well as increasing ROP (rate of penetration) and reducing the amount of oil that gets stuck in the pipes. While there has been some exploration of alternative oil recovery methods, lubricants are an integral component of the drilling fluid and have traditionally been made up of standard hydrocarbon derivatives.

The newly discovered inexpensive hydrogels could potentially replace the oil based lubricants, eliminating costs and lessening toxicity concerns. Using innovative software to run experiments in silico, researchers in the oil industry may also be able to discover more advantages these new hydrogels offer over traditional drilling fluids. For example:

  • The property of hydrogels may be able to be adjusted to absorb and retain water better, increasing the ROP and reducing torque
  • Specifically-formulated hydrogels could increase the viscosity of any contaminant fluid containing water, increasing the flow of oil and thereby increasing production
  • Hydrogels could be utilized in cleaning the pipes, and help in reducing the loss of product.
  • The hydrogels might be scaled from research scale to bulk scale without any effect on their mechanical properties.5

These hydrogels promise to be an effective, inexpensive tool for oil drilling operations, driving down cost while remaining an environmentally safe and non-toxic, viable option.

For companies looking to make use of these formulated hydrogels, BIOVIA Formulations increases productivity and efficiency, reduces costs, reduces safety and compliance risk – all while increasing the pace of innovation. Ultimately, it helps industries to speed up the formulation development process and accelerate new product releases and time to market. Contact us today to find out how Formulations can better help you in the lab.

  1. “Here’s what it costs to drill a shale well these days.” March 2016
  2. “New process makes hydrogels useful for more applications” November 2016
  3. “New process makes hydrogels useful for more applications” November 2016
  4. “Scalable manufacturing of biomimetic moldable hydrogels for industrial applications” September 2016,
  5. “Scalable manufacturing of biomimetic moldable hydrogels for industrial applications” September 2016,