By Mahinaz El Baz
Innovative technologies are highly valued in the oil and gas industry to meet the growing demand for energy. Scientists have been developing and implementing new techniques to boost the productivity of the industry worldwide. Nanotechnology is considered to be one of the most promising technologies in the industry, as there are already many innovative products that use it.
Although nanotechnology has been used in the oil and gas sector for decades, international oil companies (IOCs) have increased their investments in the last 15 years in order to develop the technology’s potential in light of increasing energy demand.
Nanotechnology has many applications in both the upstream and downstream sectors – ranging from exploration to refining. The variety of applications is enormous, and they have the potential to enhance well integrity, productivity, and recovery. However, this technology is rarely applied in developing countries, such as Egypt, due to technical and financial challenges.
World energy demand is expected to increase by up to 50% by the end of 2030, according to a paper published in the Journal of Applied Polymer Science by Miller et al. The potential contribution of new renewable energy sources could prove insignificant in meeting increased energy demand. Therefore, many scientists believe that hydrocarbons will remain the major source of energy over the next few decades. Owing to increased energy demand, it is extremely important to explore for new fields and to maximize production from existing ones. At present, only one-third of the total oil present in a reservoir can be recovered using conventional oil recovery techniques, according a published article in the Hindawi Journal of Nanomaterials by Kamal et al.
There is an urgent need to develop and implement unconventional techniques, such as nanotechnology, which could provide solutions to the biggest recovery challenges facing the oil and gas industry. Many major IOCs are currently in a race against time to utilize nanotechnology concepts in order to satisfy global hydrocarbon demand.
“While dropping energy prices – for both oil and natural gas – have investors and analysts checking to see what the breakeven price is for oil production in each play, further development is necessary for practical and economic implementation of these emerging applications in the field. The ‘nano’ world clearly brings to the [Exploration & Production] E&P industry exciting new opportunities and challenges,” noted Abdelrahman El Diasty, Research Assistant for the Petroleum and Energy Engineering Department at the American University in Cairo (AUC).
Numerous technologies are regularly developed and adapted by the oil and gas industry; thus, it is not surprising that nanotechnology has spread throughout the different sectors of the industry. Nanotechnology deals with the design, characterization, production, and application of materials and devices based on the nanometer (nm) scale. Emerging applications of nanotechnology in the hydrocarbon industry is mainly for enhanced oil recovery (EOR) purposes, due to its cost-effective and environmental-friendly contributions to the field. There are many existing nanotechnology applications in the global oil and gas industry, such as nanoparticles, nano-fluids, nanosensors, and nano-coatings, according to a published paper in the International Journal for Technological Research in Engineering by Pandey et al.
Nanoparticles have properties potentially useful for oil-recovery processes, formation evaluation, and scale-formation control. Nanoparticles are substances with dimensions in the order of 1–100 nm and may possess special physical properties. They are of high interest as they effectively bridge bulk materials and atomic or molecular structures, according to Fakoya and Shah’s published paper, Emergence of nanotechnology in the oil and gas industry: Emphasis on the application of silica nanoparticles.
The use of nano-fluids is considered one of the most promising applications of nanotechnology in the oil and gas industry, especially for drilling; enhanced oil recovery; and completion, stimulation, exploration and exploitation of oil and gas. Nano-fluids are a class of fluids engineered by dispersing nanoparticles in base fluids such as nano-fibers, nanotubes, nano-drops, and nanowires.
“In addition to nanoparticles, the base fluid properties such as viscosity, density, specific heat, and thermal conductivity can be modified to optimum levels. The nanoparticles used in the design of such fluids are preferably inorganic with properties of no dissolution or aggregation in the liquid environment. The most commonly used nanoparticles for enhanced oil recovery are the spherical silica nanoparticles with a diameter in the range of several to tens of nanometers,” noted Pandey et al.
Empirical studies have demonstrated that nanomaterials are excellent tools for developing sensors and imaging-contrast agents due to their ability to form percolated structures at low-volume fractions and the substantial alterations in their optical, magnetic, and electrical properties, Krishnamoorti wrote in his published paper in the Journal of Petroleum Technology.
Nano scientists are expecting nanomaterials to be used as an integral part of complete smart structures composed of various elements including sensors, actuators, and control devices. “The coating using carbon nanotubes adds to an innovative application to conduct current for evenly heating surface, which could be used on pipelines to reduce gas hydrate formation or to de-ice the blades on wind turbines. The corrosion-resistant material solution could be represented by nano-metric thin films and composites with nanostructured fillers,” stated Pandey et al.
Nano-coated, wear-resistant probes that are made from tungsten carbide enhance the lifespan and efficiency of drilling systems, resulting in remarkable cost savings. The same applies to the nano-layered corrosion inhibitors in pipes or tanks, which form a permanent molecular layer on the surface of metals.
Scientists argue that such nanomaterials, combined with smart fluids, may be used as a very sensitive down-hole sensor for temperature, pressure, and stress even under extreme environmental conditions. These new sensitive sensors are beneficial as they are smaller in size, work safely in the presence of electromagnetic fields, are able to sustain high-temperature and pressure environments, and can be replaced at a reasonable cost without hindering the oil exploration. For instance, nanosensors have been developed rapidly to enhance the resolution of the subsurface imaging, leading to advanced field characterization techniques, noted El Diasty and Salem in their 2013 paper about the uses of nanotechnology in the energy sector.
Furthermore, using the anisotropic nature of many nanoparticles, percolation is a strong function of orientation, and thus, for appropriately processed materials, highly anisotropic electrical and mechanical properties are observed in different directions, explained Kapusta et al in their published paper about nanotechnology applications in oil and gas exploration and production in 2012.
Future Contribution in Egypt
Egypt’s domestic demand for hydrocarbons is increasing rapidly, according to official statistics. Egyptian consumption of natural gas has been increasing by approximately 7% annually over the past decade, according to Daily News Egypt. The country’s total natural gas consumption is about 6 billion cubic feet per day (bcf/d). Out of this 6 bcf/d, roughly 65% is burned in electricity-generation plants, a government official told Ahram Online. In addition, Egypt’s natural gas demand is forecast to rise to 6.37 bcf/d, according to CI Capital, which is close to the estimated production level of 6.2-6.4 bcf/d in 2018.
Oil consumption has grown by more than 30% in the past 15 years, Dr. Adel Salem, Assistant Professor of Petroleum Engineering at the American University in Cairo (AUC) told Wamda. Hydrocarbon reserves in Egypt witnessed an annual increase for almost ten years before the discovery of the Zohr field, but the average recovery factor is still stuck at the 35%, noted Salem. Nanotechnology offers potential solutions to most of Egypt’s production challenges. By eliminating problems that occur during field-development operations, it increases the oil recovery rate and decreases production costs, according to El Diasty and Salem.
Explaining the benefits of implementing this new technology in Egypt, Salem stated that using nanoparticle technology could add 10-¬20% more oil to Egypt’s current production rate, which has been in decline since 1996. That would produce between 70,000 and 140,000 extra barrels of oil per day (b/d). Furthermore, as current technology only allows for the extraction of about one-third of a reservoir’s oil, this technology could rejuvenate Egypt’s multiple brownfields .These technologies provide opportunities. “There is an interesting area of preparing silica nanoparticles by mechanical methods using Egyptian resources of silica sand. [Furthermore, study] results obtained showed the promising future of petroleum-oriented nanotechnology in Egypt and how we can meet our oil demand using this advanced technology,” noted Salem.
Egypt’s Potential Challenges
Egypt’s oil and gas industry is facing future challenges in terms of environmentally friendly operations, higher demand for hydrocarbon products, and outdated techniques. E&P activities in particular face increasing technical challenges due to changes in operational conditions, the nature of subsurface geological hazards at greater depths, and the complexity of wellbore profiles that maximize reservoir contact.
However, although nanotechnology is expected to offer solutions to many of the challenges that Egypt’s oil and gas industry faces, there are few empirical studies on implementing this new technology in Egypt. This scarcity creates an urgent need to encourage research on its potential.
“The challenges in this field are the size, the material type, and concentration of these nanoparticles. It’s a big challenge, the nanomaterial itself, [whether it is] silica, aluminum, or zinc oxides. The other is the concentration. We have to determine the optimum material, the optimum size, [and] the optimum concentration, because all of these can provoke or can hinder or can damage the reservoir. For each reservoir, people have to experiment to determine all of these factors,” Salem told Wamda.
In addition, he believes the biggest challenge facing the adoption of nanotechnology in Egypt’s hydrocarbon industry is to convince oil companies that innovative nanotechnology provides operational solutions to their challenges. He stated that most companies rely on natural reservoir pressure and water flooding without considering the more effective methods proposed by nanotechnology. “Here in Egypt we need to focus on any way to improve our recovery. We have to try a type of chemical flooding and then jump again to new technology because in experimental work all over the world, nanotechnology has proved its efficiency,” Salem said.
Scientists all over the world consider the cost of nanomaterials a major concern. Thus industrial production of low-cost nanomaterials is critical for to the application of nanotechnology in Egypt’s oil and gas industry. “The varieties of nanomaterial resources and the development of optimal production processes could be the solutions for cost reduction. On the other hand, HSE aspects should be considered carefully before field applications. The dispersion of nanomaterials, their interactions with other components, as well as their tolerance of salinity, temperature, and pH are important scientific issues. Therefore, in order to achieve successful applications of nanotechnology in the oil and gas industry, the scope for further work should include the emphasis of detailed mechanistic studies of nanomaterials in the particular field of the oil and gas industry,” according to a paper published by the Canadian Journal of Chemical Engineering in 2017 by Peng et al. on the uses of nanotechnology in the oil and gas industry.
Egypt’s upstream industry is facing many material and technical difficulties caused by rising energy demand and increased operational complexity. These challenges could be addressed through the use of new technologies. Nanotechnology has the potential to transform the technological landscape of the global, regional, and local oil and gas industry. Current research has explored many applications of nanotechnology – from upstream exploration to downstream refining–and has highlighted the opportunities and challenges this new technology presents. Yet, in order for these new technologies to be fully implemented in Egypt, more empirical research must be done in order to predict future challenges and find proactive solutions.