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Bandwidth of Nanotechnology in the Oil Field Widens

On the final day of the SPE Annual Technology Conference and Exhibition in Calgary, attendees filled a hall to listen to seven experts discuss the value to the oil and gas industry of particles that are less than 1 micron in length. Nanotechnology has great potential to reduce cost, increase production, and even improve the sustainability of E&P operations. But, where do we stand in terms of potential vs. reality? And, is the industry ready and willing to use the technology?

The gap between potential and reality is closing, the number of applications is growing, and the industry is ready and willing to use nanotechnology if it can be shown to deliver better performance for less money, according to the panelists and moderators—Steven Bryant of the University of Calgary; Hugh Daigle of The University of Texas at Austin; Ramanan Krishnamoorti of the University of Houston; Oya Karazincir of Chevron; Reinhard Pongratz and Philipp Urban of OMV Exploration; and Hui Zhang of M-I Swaco.

Nanotech in oil and gas has become a hammer with many nails.

Fifteen years ago, all agreed, everyone was anxious to jump on the bandwagon to find a nanoparticle that would solve all our problems. Today the industry is much more realistic. “Show me it can work,” is now the mantra. Field trials are crucial. And, laboratory testing is being used to develop knowledge of fundamentals that can then be recreated in the field.

The marketplace is looking for value in applications. And the applications are growing. Nanomaterials’ properties can be tailored toward specific applications in various areas. As a result, nanotech in oil and gas has become a hammer with many nails.

Leveraging Synergy with Surfactants

“Synergy occurs when a combination of two materials provides better performance than can be achieved with either material separately,” said Bryant. Synergy between nanoparticles and surfactants imparts robustness to complex fluids and enables new forms of the fluids. And, the nanoparticles can be processed to impart better properties to crude oil in refineries.

Benefits for Tracers and EOR

Because of their small size, nanoparticles can penetrate through reservoir rock, which makes them ideal candidates for improving the performance of tracers and enhanced oil recovery (EOR) additives.

“Nanoparticles deliver much faster arrival times than chemical or nuclear tracers,” said Krishnamoorti. He added that polymer-grafted nanoparticles have the potential to revolutionize EOR by providing rapidly generated EOR material with much faster dispersion, and detection can take place at the wellsite, without having to return to the laboratory for analysis.

Completion Fluid Additives

As completion fluid additives, Zhang described nanoparticles’ ability to improve completion brines compared to calcium bromide to avoid crystallization in low-temperature/high-pressure deepwater applications. 

Enabler for Sustainable Resource Development

“Any technology we come up with that allows economic growth, social progress, and environmental stewardship to coexist will be a sustainable solution,” said Daigle. Nanoparticles show great promise from a sustainability perspective for several reasons, he explained.

  • They take the place of chemicals that may be hazardous to the environment or human or animal health.

  • They reduce water use and water production, which is particularly important for unconventional resource development.

  • They treat produced water more efficiently.

  • They can be very good at stabilizing foams and emulsions, to help enable joint CO2 sequestration and EOR that may decrease the carbon footprint of some production activities.

Two particularly exciting developments under way at The University of Texas are in water treatment and flow assurance, according to Daigle. In a water treatment process developed at the university, surface modification of magnetite nanoparticles enables the nanoparticles to be manipulated to preferentially attach to divalent cations, polymers, salts, oil droplets, and other contaminants, then removed from the water. The contaminants are then detached and the contaminant waste stream removed, and the nanoparticles are reused. The process has been used to remove very small oil droplets from produced water with a removal efficiency of 99.7%.

Nanostructuring, which can dramatically improve the properties of corrosion- and wear-resistant coatings, is being used to create nanopaint with magnetic nanoparticles for flow assurance. Using nanoparticles that generate intense heat when magnetic field is applied, the nanopaint has been applied to the interior of a subsea pipeline. Sending an intelligent pig with a battery-operated magnetic field generator to heat the nanopaint causes buildup inside the pipe to dislodge. In laboratory tests, the nanopaint has been used to heat more than 25 km of pipeline to 60°C—the temperature required to effectively melt wax—before the batteries ran out.

Nanostabilized foams with no surfactants have been used to replace potentially hazardous chemicals.

“There is still a great need for research on fundamental processes at the nanoscale,” said Daigle,” because you can’t even think about starting to optimize an industrial process unless you actually know what is going to happen when you tweak those dots.” But the progress is exciting.

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