Small technology. Big challenges.
The Advanced Energy Consortium (AEC) in Austin has announced total funding of more than $6 million for 27 separate nanotechnology research programs.
The idea is to develop useful applications of nanotech for the oil and gas industry – especially new nanotech sensors that could bring a quantum leap forward in enhanced recovery.
Will the money do any good?
Jim Tour, an AEC grant recipient, is a professor of chemistry and a nanotech researcher at Rice University in Houston. It will take time for the AEC-funded scientists and researchers to develop practical oilfield applications in nanotechnology, according to Tour.
And the timeframe required depends largely on whether or not the AEC leaves the researchers alone, he said.
Only, it isn’t what you think.
“A lot of it depends on what the consortium partners do,” Tour said. “If they leave us academic types alone, it’s going to take a long time.”
Tour is a leading researcher in the nanotech field. He received the Feynman Prize in Experimental Nanotechnology last year, and also won the NASA Space Act Award for his development of carbon nanotube reinforced elastomers.
While he’s worked on nanotech applications in national defense and health care, he admitted to knowing a minimum about oilfield work and petroleum geology.
“A lot of guys who’ve gotten funding are like me,” he noted.
Which means, all of those pure researchers will need a lot of help and direction from the AEC to identify and work toward nanotech applications useful to the petroleum industry.
“If they’re willing to come up to bat and to help us and to stand beside us in the lab, it will go much faster,” Tour observed.
“If they’re going to leave us alone, it’s not going to go very fast.”
Then there’s the $6 million in funding.
With public discussion of losses in the trillions of dollars and relief programs in the hundreds of billions, the number $6 million sounds a little quaint – especially for researchers who use electron microscopes and molecule movers.
When $25 million barely pays to fix a stretch of highway, $6 million begins to seem like lunch money.
The AEC doesn’t lack for deep pockets. Members of the consortium include Baker Hughes, BP, ConocoPhillips, Halliburton, Marathon, Occidental, Petrobras, Schlumberger, Shell and Total.
Jay Kipper, AEC associate director, said the organization is well aware of the need to support and work with the nanotech researchers.
“One of the challenges we have is getting two really smart groups of people – the nanoscientists and the petroleum scientists and engineers – communicating with each other,” he said.
Meetings and focused workshops already have been useful and those successful efforts will continue, according to Kipper.
“We’re spending a lot of time and energy developing tutorials, Web forums, presentations and podcasts, trying to get our nanotechnologists up to speed,” he said.
The managing organization for AEC is the Bureau of Economic Geology at the University of Texas at Austin. Given the Bureau’s long history and deep involvement with the petroleum industry, it has plenty of resources for the task, Kipper noted.
“We’ve got a whole suite of tools we can access and people we can link up with,” he said.
And the funding level turned out to be just right.
Luckily, nanoresearchers are cheap dates.
“They’re pretty happy about the magnitude (of the grants). The size of the contracts is on the order of a couple of hundred thousand dollars and up,” Kipper said.
Also, the AEC’s recently announced grants are only an initial round. Scientific progress will be rewarded with more funding going forward, depending on the degree and type of successful research results.
“We plan on giving out additional money in 2009,” Kipper said, “but we don’t know how much and we don’t know when.”
Almost all of the AEC’s initial funding recipients are programs at universities.
AEC’s original request for proposals last July targeted research “to develop micro- and nanoscale technology for enhanced reservoir characterization and hydrocarbon detection.” Kipper said the request drew a large number of high-quality responses.
“Probably one in three was accepted. It was actually very difficult for us because they were super proposals we were getting – all of these proposals were top-notch stuff,” he explained.
Kipper said the consortium wants research to focus on five areas:
“The majority of the funding is focused on sensing,” he noted. “That’s what the AEC is all about.”
Powering such small devices will be a technical challenge, and “there’s not just one correct answer, either. We’re looking at a number of approaches,” Kipper said.
Related problems of communication and control have to overcome corrosive downhole environments and the difficulty of working at such a small scale.
“Communication may be the single most significant issue for injectable sensor development,” Kipper said. “These devices will have limited power, and we will have to overcome the attenuation of radio frequencies (RF) in brine-saturated rock.”
Direct control of the downhole sensors is highly desirable, maybe even essential, but it also will be very difficult to achieve.
“We’re going into a wet environment, so we’re talking about nanosubmarines,” Kipper said.
“GPS is not the proper term,” he continued, “but you’ve got to be able to determine sensor location, so you know where the information is coming from.”
Tour said nanotech can help the industry find and produce “left-behind” hydrocarbons, and improved recovery is the real driving force behind the AEC-funded research.
“It would be very nice if you could put a nanometer-size device down in the hole and it could give you information about what’s there,” Tour said.
But, “how do you build such a thing if it’s going to have a power source, if it’s electronic?” he asked. “And if it’s not electronic, what are you going to build?”
Communication and control would probably require both a built-in power source and communication capability, Tour said. This indicates a device of at least a micron in size, or about 1/100 the width of a human hair.
Of course, that’s absurdly large for a rock-pore sensor device. You might as well be talking about a truck.
In his own work, Tour wants to develop a sensor no more than 1/10 that size. It might be around 100 nanometers by 30 nanometers, designed to carry a chemical sensing package into rock pores.
“We’re looking at different structures. They have to be non-toxic, of course. Some are based on carbon scaffolds and some on silicon scaffolds,” he said.
Those nanostructures will be loaded with chemicals that undergo changes when exposed to variations in temperature and pressure, the presence of salt and hydrocarbons, and so on.
“The moieties we append onto the nanometer-sized entities, which we’re calling ‘nanobots,’ they will display that information,” Tour said.
As the nanobots pass through the rock, they will record the types of environment they encounter along the way.
“We can build chemical groups that can tell us other things. For instance, how much hydrogen sulfide did it see?” Tour said.
“These are basic chemical reactions that occur between organic moieties, or organometallic moieties, and different environments. It’s just that now we’re appending these units onto the nanobots,” he added.
Preliminary research steps prove the nanosensors can be created, according to Tour.
“We’ve demonstrated that we can actually append on entities that can potentially allow us to interrogate, say, the amount of salt versus the amount of water,” he said, “but we have yet to do the kinetics partitioning.
“We also have demonstrated their solubility in water,” he added. “You have to get them truly soluble in water so you can pump them down.”
To date, his researchers have “just begun the work of pumping these into core samples,” Tour said, “but nothing has been pumped into the actual ground.”
Capturing information is only one part of a much bigger challenge in designing a nano-sized sensing device.
“What we are building won’t necessarily give us a map of the route it took,” Tour noted. “It will just tell us what the environment was like. It would be very nice to have some other source that gives you information about the path it took.”
And therein rests the problem: How do you get all of the capabilities into a unit small enough to enter and, ideally, pass through rock pores? How do you get it to communicate a location?
“That can be particularly hard in the downhole environments because you’ve got water down there, you’ve got salt down there. It’s very hard to transmit signals, especially with this small package that has to be self-contained,” he said.
There’s also no guarantee that one of Tour’s nanobots will survive the harsh environment. So, he’s planning to pump down more than one.
“We will send down something on the order of 1015. It would be a thousand trillion – that would be a quadrillion,” he said.
Even with a high mortality rate, more than enough nanobots should survive to provide meaningful information. Tour said he would like to recover enough to do statistical analysis.
“Fundamentally, we can recover one and get some information. Practically, if we recover 106 we would be doing pretty well. But depending on the information we want, we don’t need a lot of them,” he observed.
Tour has done a significant amount of work in nanotech and has already started considering ideas for oil and gas applications, even for downhole nanosensors.
“I’ve been thinking about this area for probably a year and a half,” he said. “We’ve already made things that can apply to this area.
“I’ve never had any funding (for oil industry-related work) and that’s part of the problem. This is going to be my first,” he added.
AEC was founded to offer exactly that kind of funding – to nanoresearchers who had never considered applications for the oil and gas industry and had no support to do that kind of work.
Kipper said some of the scientists have been surprised to find out how technology-driven and even high-tech the oil industry is today. They’d thought of it as a low-tech business.
“This has actually been a good PR tool. It wasn’t intended that way, but it has been,” he said.
If results are successful, Kipper sees nanotech sensor technology as the next big advancement for the industry.
“This is sort of blue-sky research. We don’t have any thought that all of this is going to work. If it does work, it’s going to be phenomenal,” he said.
And Tour expects to get both the funding support he needs and the expert advice he has to have from the AEC.
“From what I understand,” he said, “they are eager to help.”
Almost all of the Advanced Energy Consortium’s initial funding recipients are programs at universities. They are: