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Reaping the benefits of nanotechnology in the oil & gas industry

Eyad Hamouieh

Inspired by the creative thinking of physicist Richard Feynman in 1959, nanotechnology is now recognised as having important applications in many industries – including oil and gas. Organisations in this sector should be aware of its potential impact and the opportunities it could bring. 

Nanotechnology focuses on building materials and devices on the scale of atoms and molecules – the ‘nanoscale’. A nanomaterial has at least one dimension between one and 100 nanometres, where one nanometre is a billionth of a metre. To put this in perspective, a human hair is around 80,000 to 100,000 nanometres wide.

Nanotechnology may focus on small things, but the global nanotechnology industry is large and growing, anticipated to be worth US$75.8 billion by 2020, and governments recognise its potential. The UK Government, for example, is promoting nanotechnology research through the National Graphene Institute, based at the University of Manchester, and has set up the Nanotechnology Strategy Forum to support the development of nanotechnology industries in the UK. In addition, awareness and knowledge across the UK is being increased through the Nanotechnology Knowledge Transfer Network.

So what does this mean for oil and gas? Applying nanotechnology creates huge opportunities for more efficient and effective oil and gas production. Nanotechnology has, in fact, played a part in the oil and gas industry for a long time due to the presence of nanoscale particles in the oil recovery process. With recent innovations, nanoparticles, nanosensors and nanorobots could become an integral part of the oil and gas recovery process, potentially improving every stage from searching, drilling and production/processing through to transport and refining.

One reason that nanotechnology could have such an impact is because materials’ properties (such as magnetic, electrical, thermal and optical) have unique characteristics at these scales. This means, for example,  nanoparticles can be used for advanced imaging techniques during oil reservoir exploration, where they are able to function under the high temperatures and pressures and unknown chemical environments that pose problems for normal sensors. Nanosensors sent through the wellbore and then recovered as “nanodust” with extracted oil can provide data on the reservoir’s characteristics and the nature of the fluid flow. Similarly, when extracting shale gas, nano-computerised tomography (an X-ray based imaging technique) can be used to create images of shales and pore structures. Nano-characterisation and nano-sensing technologies can also be used to obtain the mineral composition and petrophysical properties of formations. 
During drilling stages, nanoparticles can be used to change the viscosity of drilling muds – addressing the problem of thick drilling mud caking the wellbore’s walls and increasing the force required for extraction. During hydraulic fracking, nanoparticles can help to increase the viscosity of the fracking fluid and so improve its rock-fracturing ability.

Oil recovery is also being improved by nanotechnology, particularly enhanced oil recovery (EOR), which is increasingly important as oil reserves become depleted. For example, nanoparticles can reduce oil viscosity and alter wettability to improve oil mobility and hence recoverability. Magnetic nanoparticles like ferromagnetic nanofluids (also known as ‘smart’ nanofluids) can be used as crude oil tracers in estimating residual oil saturation. Research has also indicated that oil recovery is increased when magnetic nanoparticles are introduced into the oil and subjected to an electromagnetic field, so reducing oil viscosity.

Nanoparticles have also shown promising performance in scale inhibition in oil recovery equipment and the recovery of hydrates. In addition, nanostructured materials can be used for the transport of compressed natural gas, while nanocoatings and nanomembranes can be used in the refining stages to separate gas streams, remove impurities and suspend oil droplets.

As these examples show, many ways of applying nanotechnology in the oil and gas industry are already being explored. Further research will help to refine such approaches and identify new applications – so achieving more efficient, effective and lower cost oil and gas production.

Companies interested in exploring the potential can seek Government funding in the form of grants awarded by UK Research and Innovation. For example, its emerging and enabling technology programme supports innovative projects into nanotechnology applications. In addition, the Government’s Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund has highlighted the importance of quantum technologies (which includes nanotechnology) and committed £20 million in pioneer funding. HMRC’s research and development (R&D) tax relief scheme also provides valuable funding for innovative activity. Obtaining relief for qualifying R&D costs generates a potentially substantial cash boost – providing a real incentive for undertaking further innovation.  However, applying for grants and claiming R&D tax relief can be a time-consuming and complex process for individual companies unfamiliar with the details.

Moore’ Innovation & Technology Group, which includes PhD-qualified consultants in the fields of nanotechnology, chemical engineering and petrochemical engineering, can help you. We have a proven track record in both successful grant applications and R&D tax relief claims for our clients. Please get in touch for further information and support, our team is always on hand to discuss your plans and innovations and how we can help you.