Tuesday, September 01, 2015

Nano and the oil industry

I went to an interesting lunchtime talk today by Sergio Kapusta, former chief scientist of Shell.  He gave a nice overview of the oil/gas industry and where nanoscience and nanotechnology fit in.   Clearly one of the main issues of interest is assessing (and eventually recovering) oil and gas trapped in porous rock, where the hydrocarbons can be trapped due to capillarity and the connectivity of the pores and cracks may be unknown.  Nanoparticles can be made with various chemical functionalizations (for example, dangling ligands known to be cleaved if the particle temperature exceeds some threshold) and then injected into a well; the particles can then be sought at another nearby well.  The particles act as "reporters".  The physics and chemistry of getting hydrocarbons out of these environments is all about the solid/liquid interface at the nanoscale.  More active sensor technologies for the aggressive, nasty down-hole environment are always of interest, too.

When asked about R&D spending in the oil industry, he pointed out something rather interesting:  R&D is actually cheap compared to the huge capital investments made by the major companies.  That means that it's relatively stable even in boom/bust cycles because it's only a minor perturbation on the flow of capital.  

Interesting numbers:  Total capital in hardware in the field for the petrochemical industry is on the order of $2T, built up over several decades.  Typical oil consumption worldwide is around 90M barrels equivalent per day (!).   If the supply ranges from 87-93M barrels per day, the price swings from $120 to $40/barrel, respectively.  Pretty wild.


Anonymous said...

Well, let me be the first one to admit I don't understand your explanation of the positive role of nano in drilling. In fact, I find it rather alarming that nano is regarded as the savior of the highly indebted oil exploration industry. It seems they are scraping the bottom of the barrel on two fronts: geological limits and technological limits.

Douglas Natelson said...

I never meant to imply that nano is the "savior" of anything. The speaker was pointing out that nanoscience shows up in several aspects of the oil industry these days: functionalized nanoparticles as passive reporters/sensors to assess and monitor well conditions and reservoir structures; functionalization and control of surface interactions (hydrophobicity; oleophobicity); surface coatings to control wear, corrosion, and adhesion; miniaturized sensor technology for active down-hole monitoring; modeling of capillary effects; and of course back-end processes like catalysis. Basically his point was that aspects of nano are becoming more widespread in practice (moving out of the lab and into applications). I wouldn't interpret that as acting as a savior, but rather that nano stuff is moving into real technologies at some rate in that industry.

None of this is a value judgment on my part about the use of fossil fuels. The world gets 80% of its energy from hydrocarbons, and this is part of that. We're not about to run out of oil or gas or coal. If oil was $150/barrel, huge supplies of stuff that is difficult to extract (tar sands) would become economically viable. If anything, the sociological problem in the short term is that oil/gas/coal is too cheap, such that people would rather burn it now and not worry about possible long-term consequences. (Now I get to wait for the obligatory troll response that I'm a naive shill for "big solar" or something.)

GHung said...

Our global dependence on hydrocarbons is clearly one of "damned if you don't - damned if you do". We'll never feed, clothe, move, warm/cool, and house 7.3 billion+ humans without near current inputs from cheap energy, and our planet won't remain habitable for long if we keep burning stuff. Indeed, a classic predicament. Colour me a 'shill' for the reality of our situation. I see a big shift in humanity's collective behaviour over the next few decades, and I seriously doubt that shift will be voluntary. There's no answer anyone will like to our oil/coal/gas-fueled overshoot condition. Ideas like nano-tech will be rendered irrelevant.

Anonymous said...

Shell's R&D may be stable, but the oil companies often are not the drivers of technological advancement anymore. There are some notable exceptions, like Aramco running the one of world's fastest, most powerful computer systems to address thorny geosciences questions with fewer assumptions/approximations, but over the last couple of decades the operating companies have massively outsourced their R&D to the service companies to reduce costs.

And the service companies, their research budgets... well let's just say people doing research are not far from the first to get pink slips, unless they are politically protected or are directly bringing in revenue. It's a death-by-a-thousand-cuts situation, fire one guy here, another guy there, before you know it "whoa what happened?".

Anonymous said...

The down hole nanoparticle reporter applications are usually oversold. They can't really send particles in and get them back (let alone report anything). It is just an idea.