Researchers send molecules on assignment

‘Reporters’ Look for Leftovers

American Association of Petroleum Geologists (AAPG)

The petroleum industry is increasingly adept in devising new and innovative technology to recover the significant volumes of hydrocarbons that commonly remain in produced reservoirs.

In some instances, these “leftovers” may exceed 50 percent of the original volume.

Today, researchers have made considerable headway in an effort designed to send an unusual breed of reporter downhole and into the reservoir that later will return to the surface to be interrogated about what it saw – kind of like a spy returning from a clandestine assignment.

Don’t roll your eyes.

It may sound far out, but it’s for real.

Informally dubbed nano-reporters, these hydrophilic carbon clusters incorporate signaling molecules engineered to detect oil, water, certain chemicals, pressure, etc.

The structures are dated molecularly via chemical bar-coding and, upon recovery following a tour of the reservoir, they have a story to tell.

‘Keeping Them Small’

Nano-reporters are the smallest “next big thing” the industry has seen.

“The key is keeping them small, embedding all this information, the molecular coding, the ability to gather information and do that in a nano-sized entity that’s somewhere smaller than 300 nanometers (one nanometer equals one-billionth of a meter), and particularly smaller than 100 nanometers,” said Jim Tour at Rice University, “so they never plug up any orifices and can go into the smallest crevices.”

Tour, who is a professor of chemistry, computer, mechanical engineering and materials science at the Smalley Institute for Nanoscale Science and Technology (SINST) at Rice, is principal investigator for the nano-reporter research project.

The project is sponsored by the Advanced Energy Consortium (AEC), which is funding a comprehensive research program in the field of nanotechnology. The consortium is managed by the Bureau of Economic Geology at the University of Texas at Austin, and the SINST serves as a key technical partner.

The nano-reporters are being made and lab-tested at Rice where Tour is working alongside fellow profs Michael Wong and Mason Tomson from the chemical and environmental engineering departments, respectively.

Tour noted the AEC has a number of partner companies and said his group is partnering closely with Shell on the nano-reporter program.

The MO of these esoteric nano structures can be summarized quite simply:

“When this nano-sized entity goes downhole it will release the signaling molecules depending on what it sees,” Tour said. “Then when the nano-reporters come back up we’ll interrogate them and, based on the amount of material lost or retained, we’ll be able to assess how much oil they saw versus water.”

Using kinetics, it can be determined in the lab how much oil a cluster must have seen to be devoid of perhaps 98 percent of these molecules.

Getting a Complete Picture

Regarding the location of the oil in the reservoir, one only has to look at the bar code on the carbon clusters to determine if they were pumped in perhaps two years ago and just now surfacing.

“The time spent downhole will give us an assessment of how far away they were in what they saw,” Tour said. “Some may come up after a month, but they didn’t traverse as far and didn’t see as much oil – this begins to give the topology of what’s down there.

“Depending on what other molecules are there, you can do other things, like detecting how much hydrogen sulfide they saw, the pressure they saw,” he added.

Tour said the idea is to put clusters down weekly throughout the life of the well – say, in soda pop can-size volumes – to have constant reporting of what’s going on in the reservoir and what’s changing.

“They’re constantly coming up, so every week, or how often you can, you can take a little cup full of the mixture coming up from the production hole and in near real time analyze this,” Tour said.

“Technically all you have to see is one nano-reporter, but you don’t like to do that,” he said. “You like to get an average of what they all saw.

“You interrogate and use some spectroscopy, and you look at tens of thousands of them in near real time,” Tour noted.

“You get information on what they’re seeing, and you see changes over the life of the well,” he said, “which means we won’t leave as much (hydrocarbons) downhole.”


More good news: This technology provides no ammunition to the environmental activist community.

“We looked at the toxicity of these things in cells in mammals in collaboration with the medical center in a number of different studies,” Tour noted.

“We’re using things similar to this for drug delivery,” he said, “and that’s how we could move on this so swiftly – if it’s the same thing being used for drug delivery, it has to be non-toxic.”

Nano-reporters inarguably could be a magic bullet of sorts to help operators tap into previously undetected volumes of hydrocarbons.

Tour cautioned, however, that even if the nano-reporters are injected early in the life of a well, it could take as long as several months or even several years for an operator to acquire the assessment needed.

And don’t look for these minuscule spies to appear soon in a reservoir near you.

They’re just now being tested in core plug samples.

“It’s at least a couple of years away before we start pumping these downhole,” Tour said. “It’s still basic research, not applied.

“But the energy sector is very aggressive,” he noted, “and if they get something they want to start injecting it.

“So I might be pleasantly surprised.”

Comments (0)


What Can I Do?

Add Item

Enter Notes:
* You must be logged in to name and customize your collection.
Recommend Recommend
Printable Version Printable Version Email to a friend Email to a friend

Image Gallery

Emphasis: Exploration Innovations

Explorer Emphasis Article Learning curve continues Elm Coulee Idea Opened New Play Elm Coulee Idea Opened New Play Desktop /Portals/0/PackFlashItemImages/WebReady/elm-coulee-idea-opened-new-play-2009-08aug-hero.gif?width=100&h=100&mode=crop&anchor=middlecenter&quality=75amp;encoder=freeimage&progressive=true 678
Explorer Emphasis Article How will we get there? Gas Has a Big Future to Live Up To Gas Has a Big Future to Live Up To Desktop /Portals/0/PackFlashItemImages/WebReady/gas-has-a-big-future-to-live-up-to-2009-08aug-hero.gif?width=100&h=100&mode=crop&anchor=middlecenter&quality=75amp;encoder=freeimage&progressive=true 676
Explorer Emphasis Article Facies mapping aids carbonate understanding Global Satellite View Revealing Global Satellite View Revealing Desktop /Portals/0/PackFlashItemImages/WebReady/global-satellite-view-revealing-2009-08aug-hero.gif?width=100&h=100&mode=crop&anchor=middlecenter&quality=75amp;encoder=freeimage&progressive=true 674
Explorer Emphasis Article Does Lamda-Mu-Rho make your eyes glaze? It Takes a Team To Tackle Strat It Takes a Team To Tackle Strat Desktop /Portals/0/PackFlashItemImages/WebReady/hart-bruce.jpg?width=100&h=100&mode=crop&anchor=middlecenter&quality=75amp;encoder=freeimage&progressive=true 677
Explorer Emphasis Article Sometimes, look to the sky It Takes Big Ideas To Drill Big Wells It Takes Big Ideas To Drill Big Wells Desktop /Portals/0/PackFlashItemImages/WebReady/it-takes-big-ideas-to-drill-big-wells-2009-08aug-hero.gif?width=100&h=100&mode=crop&anchor=middlecenter&quality=75amp;encoder=freeimage&progressive=true 682
Explorer Emphasis Article About as esoteric as it gets Researchers Are Thinking Small Researchers Are Thinking Small Desktop /Portals/0/PackFlashItemImages/WebReady/EXPLORER-cover-2009-08aug-thumb.jpg?width=100&h=100&mode=crop&anchor=middlecenter&quality=75amp;encoder=freeimage&progressive=true 681

See Also: ACE Program Paper

ACE Program Paper Four Seasons Ballroom 2 & 3 Induced Seismicity in Oil and Gas Operations: Recent Activity, Monitoring and Regulations Induced Seismicity in Oil and Gas Operations: Recent Activity, Monitoring and Regulations Desktop /Portals/0/images/ace/2015/luncheon heros/ace2015-tp6-environment.jpg?width=100&h=100&mode=crop&anchor=middlecenter&quality=75amp;encoder=freeimage&progressive=true 15498

See Also: Online Certificate Course

Online Certificate Course Introduction to Shale Gas Introduction to Shale Gas Desktop /Portals/0/PackFlashItemImages/WebReady/oc-cc-introduction-to-shale-gas.jpg?width=100&h=100&mode=crop&anchor=middlecenter&quality=75amp;encoder=freeimage&progressive=true 1472

See Also: Explorer Article

Explorer Article Arctic Experts Heading to ATC in October Arctic Experts Heading to ATC in October Desktop /Portals/0/PackFlashItemImages/WebReady/explorer-hero-2016-10oct.jpg?width=100&h=100&mode=crop&anchor=middlecenter&quality=75amp;encoder=freeimage&progressive=true 34025

See Also: Explorer Emphasis

Explorer Emphasis Article Future fantasy nears present fact Laser Drilling Research: Closer to Reality? Laser Drilling Research: Closer to Reality? Desktop /Portals/0/PackFlashItemImages/WebReady/graves-ramona-2014-12dec.jpg?width=100&h=100&mode=crop&anchor=middlecenter&quality=75amp;encoder=freeimage&progressive=true 13696
Explorer Emphasis Article Giant Elm Coulee was breakout find Bakken Success Beckons Players Bakken Success Beckons Players Desktop /Portals/0/PackFlashItemImages/WebReady/bakken-success-beckons-players.gif?width=100&h=100&mode=crop&anchor=middlecenter&quality=75amp;encoder=freeimage&progressive=true 11093