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Is nanotechnology the future of the oil industry?

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One of the biggest difficulties in the oil industry is maximising the quantities you can get from each reservoir. It’s basically the ketchup problem - a fresh bottle flows easily, but you’re soon shaking it for a few last drops, even though you can clearly see there’s more in there.

With oil, it’s difficult to see what’s still there, and even harder to drive it out. 

Nanotech may be the future for the Oil industry

With a worldwide oil usage of 100 million barrels per day, it’s growing more important to get as much as possible out of every supply. However, it’s thought that on average only around 30% of the oil is recovered from each underground reservoir. So industry researchers are developing nanotechnology to find new methods of locating and drawing out a greater percentage.

Getting as much as this from an oil well requires pumping pressurised water or gas through an injection well, that will then force the oil up through a production well. But this process is relatively inefficient, with oil becoming trapped in tiny fissures within the rock, being pushed through the cracks along with water, brine and other particles. The difficulty of finding all these fissures and drawing out the remains mean oil companies generally abandon the project after the initial payload and move elsewhere.

This is where nanotech comes in.

Specialists are initially developing nanoparticles that will act as tiny scouts that can be flushed through the injection well and report back the pathways that the oil takes during the process.This way then can map out the connectivity between fissures and figure out where all the extra oil is going, allowing them to adjust the injection process to draw out a higher percentage of the oil reserves.

Nanoparticles are pumped through the injection well to track the oil through fissures
(Trackable nanoparticles (pink/yellow/white) are pumped with water to follow where the oil goes)

A field study by Aramco scientists tested the viability of using nanotech by sending hundreds of kilos of fluorescent carbon nanodots on a 500 metre underground trip between two oil wells. These easily detectable nanodots were found among the oil pumped from the wells, showing that they were robust enough to survive the process.

Another study embedded dye molecules in nanoparticles composed of a silver core and silica shell, and flowed them through narrow channels of microfluidic test chips. The tests showed that they could detect the particles at a part-per-billion level even when confined in microscopic channels - demonstrating that they could locate them amongst oil in tiny rock pores and fissures.

Nanoparticles can be detected in microscopic channels

The next stage is to create nanoparticles that can provide further info throughout their journey, including pressure, temperature and similar data that could help find more oil-rich spots. Being able to track oil pathways is the first step towards being able to drive a higher percentage of the total amount out of each well, making processes more efficient and cost effective.

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