The Impact of Nanotechnology on Oil and Gas Economics
Posted by D Nathan Meehan January 9, 2012

I collect knives. Custom made knives, hand crafted out of exotic materials by some amazing artists. One of my knives has a bolster made of superconducting[1] materials including such unusual elements as yttrium, bismuth, thallium and strontium. Young professionals may not remember the buzz in the industry when scientists discovered superconducting properties in materials at much higher temperatures enabling practical applications.  As scientific and engineering advances in the area were in the news regularly, oil and gas technology was scoured for potential applications. I clearly remember an industry leader claiming that the technology would revolutionize the economics of the industry. We can all agree that this claim was overstated. While superconducting materials do have high-tech applications, they are poor choices for knife bolsters; my knife reminds me that scientific advances must be translated into practical applications to impact our business.

We often talk about how technology has changed the economics of the oil and gas business citing advanced computational applications, deepwater capabilities, high-pressure/high-temperature (HP/HT) equipment, etc.  Are we really as “high tech” as other industries? For all the money we spend on research and development, do we go toe-to-toe in results with aerospace, communications, and pharmaceuticals? In this article, I use a current scientific “hot topic” to claim that we do.  However, our industry is more evolutionary in applying such technology, and the economic impact is more subtle.  While I am illustrating these applications with my company’s efforts, our competitors are (no doubt) busy as well. Let’s consider one area of advanced technology that has been in the news, nanotechnology.

A micron is 10-6 m.  An average human hair diameter is about 100 microns. With a microscope we can see objects essentially at the size of a micron. A nanometer is 10-9 m and nanotechnology deals with objects of that size. It is hard to imagine objects so small; individual atoms (regardless of which atom) are all about the same size, 10-10 m[2]. So nanotechnology deals with objects that are on the order of 10 atoms. Nanostructures exhibit unique material properties not found in their micron-size cousins. You might be surprised to know that technology companies like Baker Hughes employs a significant number of nanotechnology researchers (and even quantum physicists) to translate these unique properties into developing industry useful products. As you may have figured out by now, productizing nanotechnology is anything but trivial.  In many cases, commercial nanoparticles are infeasible to process without the development of a chemical mask at the molecular level that is application specific and makes these nanomaterials useable.  However, given the quality of the young minds available and focus that our industry is known for, I have little doubt that the technical bottlenecks will progressively resolve and we will see more nanotechnology-based products in near future.

One example of a commercial nanotechnology application is the Baker Hughes FracPoint Multistage Fracturing System used in horizontal wells. The two primary approaches used in such completions are perf-and-plug, openhole packers, and sleeves[3], the latter of which employs dropping a series of balls that close off an interval and open another interval for the next treatment. As the length of horizontal wells has grown to 6,000 feet plus and number of fracture stages has grown to more than 20, recovering the frac balls may become an issue due in part to the close tolerances and high differential pressures required. If the well cleans up rapidly at the heel section, there may be little available pressure drop to recover the frac balls further out and those intervals may not clean up and contribute as desired.  Hence a loss of productivity.

Nanotechnology has enabled development of a new class of intermetallic composite engineered material that is not only strong and light weight, but through the use of selective nanocoating, this metallic composite has electrochemical reactivity as well. Controlled Electrolytic Materials (CEM), a new class of material as shown in the picture below, offer a wide range of applications with varying ductility, toughness, and corrosion rate.

The metal that goes into the CEM may be comprised of magnesium, nickel, aluminum, or other metals as an ultrafine powder. The nanotechnology coatings result in properties not easily attainable with traditional material combinations. The combined materials are sintered into blocks from which the frac balls are machined. These balls are lighter than aluminum, but have potential to be stronger than steel (Fig. 1)[4]. After being pumped into the well and exposed to downhole fluids, the material slowly disaggregates and the metal in the ball reverts to a powder. The time to disaggregate can be engineered by matching the composition and fluids to the specific well conditions.

Another example of a current commercial nanotechnology is a fines-fixing agent.  Formation fines in any aging well challenge the available sand control solutions.  Nanoparticles, due to their extremely high aggregate surface area, can be made to act as “nano-sponges”.  Delivered through a completion fluid, nano-sponges deposit on proppant or gravel packs away from wellbore.  These nano-sponges can be formulated to retain approximately 20 times its weight of formation fines.  Nanoparticle coated proppant arrests formation fines away from wellbore thus maintaining well productivity and increasing the life of sand-control screens.

With many decades of active research and development in traditional metal alloys and plastics, it is fair to say that further performance improvement will only be marginal. Much greater progress will be needed for future HP/HT applications and even higher reliability, smart, interventionless tools. Carbon nanotubes are one such potential new material. It is 100% carbon fiber with a diameter of a fraction of a micron. It is estimated to have a property blend that is truly orders of magnitude better than anything we use today. Mechanical strength of nanotubes is 100 times stronger than that of steel, with a modulus almost a million times higher than steel. Its thermal conductivity is 2.5 times higher than diamond—the best known today. This nanomaterial is being incorporated into rubber packer compounds and other applications.

Graphene is another nanomaterial with extremely high levels of research. Extracted from graphite, it is a one-atom-thick sheet of carbon atoms arranged in a honeycomb-style lattice pattern. Because of its unique electrical, magnetic, and other properties, graphene has grown central to much of the research into nanotechnology. Its inventors from the University of Manchester are Professors Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov, both originally from Russia. They were awarded the 2010 Physics Nobel Prize. Just as the 1996 Nobel Prize in chemistry did, graphene may well start another nanorace. Our company has been actively patenting in nanotechnology applications.

These are only a few applications of nanotechnology in a relatively narrow segment of the industry. From seismic acquisition and processing down to recovering the “last oil” from existing fields, researchers at service companies, oil companies, universities, and other organizations are both developing new technology and finding ways of applying the state-of-the-art from other disciplines. Nanotechnology will be a part of a host of products that will improve oilfield economics significantly enough that I won’t need to have a knife made with nanoparticles as a technology reminder!


[1] Superconductivity is a property of certain materials at low temperatures to have zero electrical resistivity and was predicted by Einstein and demonstrated as early as 1911 for extremely low (<5⁰ K) temperatures limiting its practical application. Four Nobel prizes in physics have been awarded for discoveries in superconductivity.

[2] 10-10 m is often referred to as an Angstrom Unit, symbol (Å).

[3] I compare these two methods in my blog entry http://blogs.bakerhughes.com/reservoir/2010/09/18/completion-techniques-in-shale-reservoirs/

[4] http://www-materials.eng.cam.ac.uk/mpsite/interactive_charts/strength-density/IEChart.html

Article originally prepared for The Way Ahead, an SPE magazine for young professionals.

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