Potential Nanoparticle Technology Could Harvest Crude from Spent Wells

Draining a well dry may take on a whole new meaning thanks to the properties of a new class of nanoparticles.  The technology is already being developed to target cancer cells, deliver drugs, and monitor biomarkers in vivo, so why not design a batch with an affinity for the family of hydrocarbons found in oil?  An unusual research effort is working to exactly that: tailor nanotechnology for the oil industry that can seek out crude hydrocarbon deposits in otherwise dried up oil wells.

While drilling for oil has stirred up quite the controversy over the years between environmentalists and energy companies, most can agree that where drilling does occur, protocols should be in place to extract as much of the oil in any given well as cleanly and efficiently as possible.  Unfortunately, when the free-flowing oil from a well has been depleted, nearly half of the oil deposits remain in the well trapped in porous rocks and sediment.  Traditional extraction methods leave these sources behind because they are difficult to locate and sequester.  This is where nanoparticles come into play.

One nanoparticle-based method is still under development at Rice University.  Nanoparticles are coated with a hydrophobic substance that reacts with oil and then scattered in the water that gets pumped through supposedly empty wells.  Scientists would be able to monitor the particles as they return with the pump water as it cycles.  If any pockets of oil remain, the coating will have reacted and changed composition, alerting the team to investigate further.

An alternative method being explored at Penn State uses a natural saline gradient to push the nanoparticles into the salty water in the rock formations, where crude oil might be found.  Once again, a reactive coating alters engineers as to where the crude is trapped.

Once the trapped oil has been located, crews need a method to reach it.  A team of researchers at the University of Kansas is using the principles behind nanocapsule drug delivery to access the crude reserves.  Just as a medical nanocapsule is designed to release a drug only when a cancer cell is detected, these industrial nanocapsules release a detergent when oil is present.  The detergent loosens the crude deposits from the rocks, allowing it to reach the fresh water stream and be carried to the well surface.

The ideas behind these nanotechnology approaches are simple enough, but the methods are not yet ready for field-testing.  The utilization in oilfields will only move forward when biotech and oil labs have completed the optimization.  As a rough estimate, these nanoparticles could help access 360 billion barrels of oil without the need for additional drilling.