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Nanotechnology potential and progress addressed in recent Shell forum


October 16, 2008

While nanotechnology has made a positive impact on many industries, the oil and gas industry has yet to fully investigate its potential. For this reason, Royal Dutch Shell hosted an International Nanotechnology Forum last week in Houston, Texas. The three-day, invitation-only event began a serious dialogue between nanotechnology experts and Shell scientists with the goal of understanding the realistic benefits nanomaterials might provide in future production scenarios.

Nanotechnology refers to the understanding and control of materials at the molecular level, in the size range of roughly 1 to 100 nm. To put this in perspective, the size ratio of a football to the diameter of the earth is roughly the same as that between 1 nm and 1 meter.

At these dimensions, materials exhibit unique physical phenomena that ideally give way to novel applications. For example, nanomaterials can be much stronger than conventional materials, and may offer superior flexibility and corrosion resistance as well. These properties would be well suited for construction materials that are stronger, and yet lighter, than steel for offshore production operations.

“Nanotechnology has made significant progress, and offered several benefits, to other industries in the past few years, but the oil and gas industry is only starting to look at this class of materials seriously,” said Sergio Kapusta, Shell’s Chief Scientist for Materials and one of the forum attendees. He mentioned that while industries such as electronics, pharmaceuticals, and telecommunications have invested billions of dollars in nanotechnology over the past few years, the oil and gas industry as a whole has only invested approximately USD 100 million in nanotechnology R&D over the same time frame.

Shell began seriously investigating nanotechnology for energy applications about three years ago, with the goals of producing more hydrocarbon from existing wells, producing more hydrocarbon from difficult sources (i.e., oil sands, shales), and helping to protect the environment through improvements to water clarification and carbon sequestration.

Shell has made inroads into research collaboration by pioneering the Texas-based Advanced Energy Consortium, which facilitates precompetitive research in micro- and nanotechnology materials, and by sponsoring SPE’s first Applied Technology Workshop on nanotechnology, held earlier this year in Dubai. However, in order for Shell to obtain step change improvements rather than incremental advances, more detailed collaborative work is needed.

The forum brought together 30 of the world’s leading nanotechnology experts and 30 Shell scientists to open the lines of communication and set the framework for future collaboration. “The first part of the forum was designed to get everyone on the same page,” said Kapusta, “essentially to educate the nanotechnology community about the oil field and the challenges we face, and then for us to learn more about the unique characteristics of nanomaterials and how they have been applied elsewhere. With this framework, we could then begin the detailed dialogue.”

A few presentations were given on specific oilfield topics, and then breakout groups were set up on each topic. People with interest in a given topic were encouraged to join that group, discuss specifics of the production challenges in that topic, and think about how collaborative efforts might solve these challenges.

“These breakout groups returned with very specific areas for research,” Kapusta said. Some of the areas included:

* Newer materials. More advanced nano-based materials would ideally be of higher strength and durability, lower weight, lower cost, and have shorter delivery times. There is also a need for new coatings with greater corrosion and erosion resistance.
* Improved separations. Specific research interests include developing nano-based materials for improved fluid separation and lower-cost means of separating CO2 at high pressure for more efficient carbon sequestration.
* Improved catalysts. In particular, there is interest for nano-based catalysts that can convert shales and tar sands into higher quality fuels.
* Improved EOR operations. Nanotechnology could provide improved emulsions for more efficient reservoir sweeps, or nanoparticles that could be injected into the reservoir and transmit data to the surface for improved mapping and identification of the oil/water interface.
* Greener fuels. A combination of nano- and bio-based solutions could yield more efficient catalysts for the conversion of cellulose into ethanol.

Another major research focus has to be on the fate of these nanomaterials in the environments to which they are introduced, and on the potential health consequences, since there are currently no clear regulations on the use of nanomaterials. “Wine and water are both liquids, but they are not the same. Nor is one nanoparticle the same as another, of course – ‘nano’ refers only to their size. But this technology is still so new that there is uncertainty as to the potential environmental, health, and safety risks that some nanoparticles may pose,” Kapusta said.

Ted Moon is the Technology Editor of JPT Online. He brings information on emerging technologies, R&D successes, new field applications, updates from SPE papers about recent innovations, and more. If you have a question or suggestion for future article topics, email Ted at [email protected].

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