Egyptian researchers at the American University in Cairo (AUC) are conducting pioneering nanotechnology research that may boost oil recovery rates to unprecedented heights.

Although nanotechnology has been applied in the downstream petroleum industry for decades already, it was only in the 2000s that the upstream sector really began to take interest. Since then, research on upstream nanotechnology applications has boomed. In Egypt, this kind of research is conducted at the AUC by Dr. Adel Salem, Assistant Professor of Petroleum and Energy Engineering, and Abdelrahman Ibrahim El-Diasty, Research Assistant at AUC, and a senior student at Suez University.

Up to 90% Recovery Rates in the Laboratory

More specifically, the two researchers try to increase oil recovery rates with the help of nanoparticles. The dimensions of such particles range only from about 1 to 100 nanometers (10-9m–10-7m), so they can be very effective in pushing oil out of tiny rock pores, in the scale of microns, that even cannot be seen by a naked eye.
In their experiments financed by AUC, El-Diasty and Dr. Salem used nanofluids for flooding oil out of rock samples obtained from the Bahariya formation. “Nanofluid is basically water carrying suspended nanoparticles,” explained El-Diasty. In the laboratory, they achieved recovery rates as high as 90%, whereas simple water flooding resulted in only 36% recovery.

However, Dr. Salem said that even though AUC’s petroleum laboratory is one of the best in the Middle East, it is not capable of simulating the high pressures and temperatures that exist in real reservoirs. “In the field scale, the recovery rates may lower to 50-60%,” he noted. But even this would be considerably higher than recovery rates achieved by conventional methods, so the next big goal of the two researchers is to move from the laboratory to the field and conduct a pilot project at some small reservoir.

Many Nano-Applications to Boost Recovery

Researchers at several international companies-Shell and Baker Hughes for example-and in countries such as Norway, the US, China, and Saudi Arabia have similar pursuits. However, particular nano-applications being developed for improving oil recovery vary greatly. For example, while some researchers are developing nanofluids that can push more oil out of rocks, others are experimenting with nano-scale sensors that change their molecular makeup depending on the conditions they encounter in a reservoir, and yet others are devising stronger and less corrosive drilling equipment coatings by taking advantage of the fact that nanomaterials are much denser on an atomic level than typical metals. Dr. Salem also pointed out that research is being conducted on improving steam flooding by nanotechnology since nanoparticles can carry heat very effectively, thanks to their larger surface-area-to-volume ratio compared to bigger particles.
Most of such research has yielded promising results, said El-Diasty. Yet there are hardly any commercial nano-applications for the upstream petroleum industry, predominantly because nanoparticles and nanomaterials are expensive.

High Cost of Nanoparticles an Obstacle

“Nanoparticles are mostly produced for medical applications, which need them in almost 100% purity and in small quantities. That is why they are expensive,” explained El-Diasty. “At the start of our research about three years ago, only nanoparticles meant for medicine were available to us and they cost about thousand dollars per one kilogram.”

Later, chemical engineers at AUC and the Egypt’s Central Metallurgical Research & Development Institute provided nanoparticles for the experiments. El-Diasty and Dr. Salem also tried to produce nanoparticles mechanically by using a method very cheap compared to chemical ones-a simple ball mill. The particles yielded in this way were larger and less pure, and accordingly achieved lower recovery rates compared to chemically produced nanoparticles, but still clearly outperformed simple water flooding.

“The petroleum industry needs bigger amounts of nanoparticles, but with less purity compared to medicine,” said El-Diasty. Luckily, at least China has started nanoparticle production that meets such needs. “China produces cheaper nanoparticles than any other country, so that one kilogram can cost just $30,” informed El-Diasty. “They were ready to sell these to me in barrels!”

More Experiments Underway at AUC

It is possible to produce nanoparticles from almost any material, but El-Diasty and Dr. Salem have used silica nanoparticles in their experiments, which involved recovery from the Bahariya sandstone formation. “We injected sand [nanofluid] into sand [formation]. If it is the same material, then the fluid will not react with the formation and cause damage,” pointed out Dr. Salem, adding that silica nanoparticles are also relatively cheap.

Now the two researchers are conducting more experiments with other materials as well as different nanoparticle sizes and reservoir samples to achieve even better results. “One of the challenges is to prepare a nanofluid with good stability under the harsh pressure and temperature conditions of reservoirs, so that particles would not agglomerate into bigger pieces,” noted El-Diasty. Besides, the researchers try to create fluids that still work effectively when the concentration of nanoparticles is lower, since this would reduce the cost of nano-EOR. As of now, nanoparticles should make up about 0.1-3% of the weight of fluid in order to achieve high recovery rates.

El-Diasty and Dr. Salem believe that nano-EOR can become commercial in the near future. “This technology has developed so fast. Thanks to cheap nanoparticles from China, it will maybe soon be cheaper than conventional EOR methods,” said El-Diasty. “It will be a big step in EOR very soon.”

Lack of Cooperation and Bureaucracy

Since the effectiveness of nanoparticles in EOR (enhanced oil recovery) depends greatly on the properties of formation, which varie from region to region, it would not be possible to transfer the nano-EOR technologies developed abroad directly to Egypt. Hence, the research of El-Diasty and Dr. Salem is vital for the future application of nano-EOR in Egypt.

Unfortunately the two researchers are facing more hurdles than many of their peers abroad. Whereas in Norway, for example, academic research centers and companies have teamed up to develop nanoparticles for EOR and the state will allocate $2.27 million for this cause in the period 2014-17 according to the Daily Fusion. In Egypt, the government lacks financial resources for supporting pioneering research and IOCs prefer to test innovative applications abroad, in more developed countries. A similar mindset prevails in Egypt’s national energy companies. “If they for example need some more complex analysis done, they rather assign it to abroad than to any university in Egypt,” said El-Diasty.

“We want to help Egypt and we are ready to cooperate with anyone,” he stressed. The governmental Egyptian Petroleum Research Institute did recently establish a Nanotechnology Center, but it is focusing on downstream applications. El-Diasty and Dr. Salem hope that perhaps they will be able to partner with some international oilfield service company that is active in Egypt, but their collaboration with joint ventures to obtain rock samples for experiments has been far from smooth. “Getting those samples is very complicated,” said El-Diasty. “There is a lot of bureaucracy. It can take more than a year to get reservoir samples from a company. Hence sometimes we just take samples from the surface outcrops, but they should have the same properties as samples obtained from reservoirs.

EOR Success Story in Oman’s Oil Sector

In a way it is not surprising that the government and the companies operating in Egypt show little interest in cooperating regarding nano-EOR research, as even the use of mainstream EOR technologies has been sluggish in the country. According to Dr. Salem, only some thermal methods and water flooding are used in Egypt when it comes to EOR.

This is so despite the fact that there are many EOR technologies being applied and tested all around the world-CO2 flooding, polymer flooding, plasma-pulse, microbial injection, just to name a few. In some countries EOR technologies have yielded remarkable success in boosting oil production rates. One of such countries is Oman, which started actively applying EOR technologies a few years ago. EOR was the main factor alongside some new discoveries that in 2008 helped reverse the decline of Oman’s oil production, which had started eight years before, informs the US Energy Information Agency.

EOR methods used in Oman include polymer injection, miscible gas injection, steam injection, and solar thermal EOR. Solar thermal EOR-whereby the sun’s heat is used for generating steam needed for oil recovery-is especially predicted to have a big future in the Middle East, reports In 2012, Shell and its partners invested over $25 million in this technology in Oman. The government-controlled Petroleum Development Oman (PDO), which accounts for 70% of the country’s oil production, expects to save up to 80% on gas usage thanks to solar thermal EOR and will continue to invest also in other EOR methods. “By 2020, about 22% … of our production will be from EOR,” said Dr. Syham Bentouati, Head of New Technology Implementation at PDO, according to al-Bawaba.

Egypt’s Huge EOR Potential Still Locked

EOR also has huge potential in Egypt since the country possesses a number of brownfields, which still contain vast amounts of oil. On average, only about 35% of this oil has been recovered by conventional methods. Thus, supporting research on new EOR methods as well as investing in the utilization of EOR technologies that are already commercial can yield big benefits for Egypt.

As of now, Egypt’s government and companies seem to lack the finances and the will to support the pioneering nano-EOR research that has emerged in the country, and as a result El-Diasty and Dr. Salem are looking at following their successful laboratory experiments with a pilot project abroad. There is no lack of interest in their research there. The two researchers have presented their experiments in several international science publications and events, and have been proposed to conduct the pilot project on a field in Qatar.

By Laura Raus