Nanotechnology in the Oil & Gas Industry

Robert Ferris, Ph.D. Strategic Planner

Robert Ferris, Ph.D.
Strategic Planner

Author: Robert Ferris, Ph.D.

Nanotechnology-enabled products is offering real value in the oil & gas industry

This piece will focus on the customers in the oil & gas industry. Oil & gas producers have been an early adopter of nanotechnology. Fundamentally, the industry has been part of nanotechnology since the beginning because oil reserves are really just emulsions of oil, gas, and water that create nanoscale particles. More recently, however, nanoscale research and commercialization has transitioned to leveraging nanotechnology to improve their extraction processes. This requires a transition from studying fluid and chemical properties to process-oriented recover solutions. Such a transition requires new insights and experts. Cross-disciplinary teams are already being implemented to solve these problems. For example, BP gathers elite nanotechnologists every quarter to review recent innovations in nanotechnology. Also, SPE international just hosted a conference focused on Nanotechnology and Nano-Geoscience in the Oil and Gas Industry.

Source: AFL. Off-shore drilling platforms are exposed to some of the most extreme conditions for corrosion, wind, and sun.

Nearly every major oil & gas company has a track record of investing in nanotechnology-enabled innovations and use nanotechnology to:

  • Enhance oil recovery
  • Improve equipment reliability
  • Reduce energy losses during production
  • Provide real-time analytics on emulsion characteristics
  • Deliver new source materials

One of the most advanced concepts of nanotechnology in oil & gas is to enhance oil recovery. Normally, reservoirs are only able to recover about 1 out of every 3 barrels of oil from a reservoir. Enhancing oil recovery is critical to investment economics. A number of techniques are being considered but the most promising one is nano-robots that provide real time insight into the well pad during operation. Nano-size robots will provide reservoir characteristics back to the operators to guide drilling and recovery operations. Nanoscale robots are necessary because they are small enough to pass through the pores in the reservoir. After injection and exposure, they are returned during recovery to give valuable information regarding the current reservoir characteristics, allowing the operators to adapt their additive mixture, operating pressure, or financial outlook.

Another information gap is that current seismic technology cannot produce high resolution maps of the oil reservoir. To resolve this, Saudi Aramco, in collaboration with Rice University, has been investigating the use of resbot sensors. These “nanoreporters” are designed to change their molecular makeup depending on what they encounter within the reservoir – water, petroleum, hydrogen sulfide, etc. They will also be given tags that can indicate exposure duration and environmental conditions. While the resbots have been successfully recovered after injection, the technology still needs to develop standard sensors that can survive reservoir conditions and transmit critical information back to the operators.

Another avenue for nanotechnology to enhance oil recovery is using nanoparticles as an additive during normal operations. For example, recent work in the University of Alaska Fairbanks has shown that adding metal nanoparticles to supercritical CO2 reduces the viscosity of the recovered heavy oil. This holds promise in increasing oil recovery through increased injection efficacy during normal operations.

Improved equipment reliability through anti-corrosion coatings have also been a major focus of the oil & gas industry. With the recent increase in sour crude, pipelines and processing equipment are degrading faster than usual. This leave an opportunity for nanotechnology-enabled coatings to improve resistance to these new corrosive conditions. For example, Saudi Aramco has engaged Integran to develop in-situ structural repair of degraded heat exchangers. Integrans’ nanometal structural plating process will be used to apply erosion- and corrosion-resistant coatings to heat exchanger components. Improving the surface coatings of the heat exchanger will reduce downtime associated with repair and overhaul. In the like, PEMEX & SINOPEC are using a nanoparticle-insulation produced by Industrial Nanotech to coat their tanks and pipelines. Improved reliability also has big impacts on health and safety concerns for operators.

Heat loss and burn safety are two major issues in oil & gas processing equipment. Wasted heat accounts for up to 50% of the total industrial energy use, or 55.6 Quads per year in the United States (in 2011). Nansulate is another advanced nanotechnology company that is solving insulation issues for oil & gas companies. Nansulate is an aerogel solution that insulates industrial equipment from heat loss. A coating thickness about that of a piece of paper insulates a pipe or tank as well as 3 inches of fiberglass insulation. The proprietary blend also provides improved corrosion resistance. The insulation can be spray coated to any metallic surface and conforms to difficult surfaces. This combination means that Nansulate removes the risk of corrosion under insulation (CUI), improves energy efficiency, can works on an industrial scale. Nansulate has already implemented solutions for SINOPEC, Galp Energia, Sipetrol, and Smart Fuels biofuels.

Source: Wikipedia. 2011 Energy use within the United State.

Nanoparticle injection and recovery from oil reservoirs could also enable real time analytics of the extracted emulsions. Shell has been working with researchers at Micromem to produce a spectroscopic instrument to detect nanoparticle characteristics during oil extraction. The instrument uses magnetic core particles coated with a sensing material to infer reservoir characteristics. Focusing the particles near a quartz window, a laser beam is scanned over the flowing fluorescently-labeled nanoparticles to detect changes in surface characteristics. This can be used to infer sulfur, water, or gas content of the extraction stream. Results were recently reported by S. Van Fleet at the Nano TechConnect event in Washington D.C.

Nanotechnology is also producing new revenue streams for oil & gas companies. In 2005, ExxonMobil and Sarnoff announced a strategic agreement to develop a mesoporous silica material for the electronics and optics market. Mesoporous silica offers a number of unique properties with significant advantages in catalysis and imaging. Also, in 2004 ChevronTexaco was investing in production of diamondoids (diamond-like nanoparticles) for commercialization. Diamondoids naturally exist in oil deposits and offer unique optical and electronic properties. Being able to extract diamondoids from the oil and gas stream may provide a new high-margin revenue stream for oil producers.

Nanotechology is also addressing a number of other advanced issues within the oil & gas industry (more than can be covered in this article). For those who are curious about other topics, please consider the list below;

  • Anti-wear coatings for drilling parts; to increase durability and equipment life span while decreasing total equipment cost. Using nano-diamond composites (Enduracoatings) or ultra-low frication coatings (Nanotech Universal).
  • Lubricants and drilling mud; One main advantage in the oil and gas field is the enhanced thermal properties (Apnano and Nanomech)
  • Advanced composite and polymer materials for extreme environments
  • Studying asphaltene nanoscience in oil fields

Technology investment continues to drive the energy delivery engine of oil & gas. The industry has always been a leader in new technology adoption and development. With oil reserves harder to find, access, and extract, advanced technologies will continue to be a critical part of delivering the global energy infrastructure. To keep profitability, oil & gas companies will leverage nanotechnology to drive top line growth, through enhanced oil recovery and products, and cost savings, through reduced downtime and improved processing efficiencies. These investments will feed continued development of nanotechnology enabled products and their broader proliferation into the global marketplace.

Stay tuned: My next post will continue to review nanotechnology initiatives lead by current Emerson Process Management customers across various industries.

Robert Ferris, Ph.D. is a strategic planner with Emerson Process Managements. He holds a bachelors and masters in chemical engineering, an MBA in new technology commercialization, and a Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science. He has an extensive background in nanotechnology development and advanced process control.

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