Nanotechnology grant to keep the black stuff flowing

Oil has driven our economies for more than a century but we still know relatively little about its life underground, according to Professor Dongsheng Wen, chair in petroleum engineering in the SCAPE.

A new €1.96 (£1.4 million) European Research Council (ERC) Consolidator grant will support Professor Wen’s research into using nanoparticles to unlock these secrets.

“Although the percentage of oil in our energy mix is decreasing, the amount our economies need is increasing,” says Professor Wen. “We need to understand more about oil reservoirs and develop new ways of unlocking oil, and nanoparticles are one of the keys.

“In many oil fields, for each barrel of oil we currently produce, we leave just over two behind. The reality is we don’t know too much about what is going on down there, and the process of recovering is expensive” says Professor Wen. “This is porous rock under high temperature, high pressure, and high salinity deep beneath the ground. Current technology is limited to trying to build up rough ideas of the underground geography by injecting tracer chemicals down and hoping to pick them up in the production wells. Most of the chemicals injected for oil recovery are absorbed by the rock rather than reaching targets to make oil flow.”

Professor Wen’s nanoparticles could transform technology for surveying the structure of existing reservoirs, and also provide new tools to improve the delivery of these chemicals.

“Firstly, we can design specially functionalised nanoparticles that act as sensors, which could tell you about their journey through the reservoirs, allowing us build up more detailed pictures of their structure.

“The second area to look at is developing nanotechnologies to package and deliver chemicals a lot more effectively. Finally, we can make nanoparticles, or produce them in the reservoir, that themselves change the properties of the oil underground and make it flow more easily.”

Some of the new funding w