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Q&A: Researchers create cheaper, faster oil retrieval method


Doctoral candidate Dan Luo, physics professor Zhifeng Ren and postdoctoral fellow Feng Wang worked with a team of others at the Texas Center for Superconductivity to create the nanotechnology that will make oil extraction cheaper and more environmentally friendly. | Courtesy of Zhifeng Ren

Zhifeng Ren, M.D. Anderson chair professor of physics at the University of Houston, recently headed the discovery of a new process to boost oil recovery with lower costs and more environmentally friendly outcomes.

The process uses nanotechnology in the tertiary phase of oil extraction, which typically involves expensive and environmentally hazardous chemicals.

The researchers’ approach of using graphene-based amphiphilic Janus nanosheets in extraction solves those problems. Using nanofluid technology, the third and last phase of drilling can extract more oil at a lower cost in terms of finance and ecology.

The Cougar spoke with Ren to find out the impetus for the research and the discovery’s potential implications.

The Cougar: What were you expecting to find when you conducted this research?

Zhifeng Ren: For this research, there was no hypothesis. It was actually a challenge for the oil industry (on) how to increase the amount of oil from drilling wells. Currently, we’ve been using surfactants and polymers in high concentrations with harsh environmental impacts, so we were looking to find a new surfactant. It would be one with less chemicals that can be used at a low concentration, so the cost will be reduced as well as the detrimental effects to the environment. That was the driving force to start the research.

TC: What are the economic implications of this discovery?

Ren: This could be huge! As you probably have heard, every day the entire world’s oil production is over 90 million barrels. If this nanotechnology can increase the oil production from the oil wells by 10 percent, which is what we’re hoping for, it would make a dramatic impact on the global oil industry.

TC: What kind of oil extraction is this meant for? Is it intended for fracking?

Ren: It can be applied to both fracking and drilling wells, but it’s more intended for the traditional oil wells. However, it’s a pretty general process that will work for both types of oil extraction.

TC: How will this technology be implemented and who will it help?

Ren: Right now, we’re in the process of making more surfactants and then we are going to work together with oil companies to do field testing. If the field testing is positive then the company working with us will hopefully use it in their oil fields. At the same time, we will try to push this to other companies, and a broader range of wells, to increase production.

TC: How does this technology make tertiary oil recovery less dangerous?

Ren: It’s more environmentally friendly because previously there were a lot of chemicals that caused pollution in the groundwater that affected all the people using it.

TC: If the technology works out and the field testing is positive, about how long would it take for companies to start implementing the technology?

Ren: That’s very hard to say. It depends on how it goes in the next stage. I would take a guess and say that if everything goes well, oil companies can begin using our technology in about a year. This is an early technology, but we are hoping to go to production stage soon so we can help the oil companies to extract more oil out of existing wells.


CORRECTION: A previous version inadvertently misspelled “field testing” as “fail testing”. This was a miscommunication on behalf of The Cougar, and we apologize for the inconvenience.

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