$1.3 million grant to predict fluid behavior, enhance oil recovery

June 21, 2016

In the U.S., approximately 60 percent of oil underground is inaccessible through conventional recovery methods, but through a new $1.3 million grant from Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC), Russell Johns, professor of petroleum and natural gas engineering, is developing improved methods to free the once-trapped fossil fuel.

Headquartered in the United Arab Emirates, ADNOC is one of the world's leading oil companies, producing over 2.7 million barrels of oil a day.

"This grant will be very beneficial for the enhanced oil recovery research we've been conducting for many years at Penn State," said Johns. "Funding research into the recovery of oil is important as demand and production continue to grow internationally. The research developed in this project may also be useful for the surfactant industry, where detergents and other soaps are made."

For over a half century, oil production companies recovered, on average, a third of a reservoir's oil through traditional methods, such as water flooding. However, these approaches eventually reach an economic limit, leaving behind a significant amount of oil for improved methods in the future.

"Oil companies get to a point where they basically have two choices -- cap the well and find a new location to drill, or apply a new, enhanced oil recovery (EOR) method to recover the excess oil," said Johns. "Until recently, the technology for surfactant injection, which cleans up the reservoirs by mobilizing oil, was not advanced enough to make accurate predictions of economic viability. Many small-scale tests have produced oil, but there has yet to be a commercial success in this area of surfactant EOR."

Johns and his research team hope to revolutionize a method known as alkali-surfactant-polymer (ASP) flooding to significantly improve the efficiency of oil recovery and its production.

ASP flooding works by injecting a chemical solution through a well and into the oil reservoir deep within the earth's surface. The soap and surfactant generated mix with the oil and decrease the interfacial tension, lowering the capillary forces that have trapped oil within the reservoir. Once the tension is significantly reduced, the injected fluid mobilizes the oil so that it can flow toward the recovery well.

As the technology behind ASP flooding and other injection methods improves, this could open the door for oil companies to continue drilling in locations abandoned earlier.

Johns will use new equipment to develop methods for companies to create the ideal balance of chemicals in their injection. He also hopes to improve the industry's understanding of microemulsions, which are intricate liquid mixtures of oil, water and surfactant, and the various factors -- pressure, volume and temperature -- that affect how fluids behave underground. They hope to develop a new model that can predict the number, composition and amount of various phases that form as fluids contact each other within the reservoir.

"The new equipment that we obtain from our partnership with ADNOC should help us to develop practical equations to study fluid behavior occurring after these injections," said Johns. "Our model can then be calibrated by these experiments to provide insight on how much of each injection component of the solution is optimal for ASP flooding at high pressure and temperature. We also hope to couple the new model with a simulation of flow within a reservoir to predict oil recoveries with this method."

In addition to increased and more efficient oil production, Johns said his team's research could also have a significant impact on the broader understanding of surfactant behavior in the chemistry industry.

"The research that we continue to conduct with this grant will benefit oil fields in the U.S., which could be pivotal as our country seeks cost-efficient ways to meet our energy needs," Johns said.

Penn State

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