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Oil & Gas

New technology aimed at increasing global oil production

July 29, 2009
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The global oil industry is spending billions on technology to increase the amount of oil it can extract from the ground, reports the Associated Press. Oil companies typically recover only about one in three barrels of oil from their fields, but they can''t afford to leave so much crude untapped at a time when it''s difficult to access new reserves. Recovering more oil has enormous implications, not only for the companies'' balance sheets but also for the world''s diminishing supply. One of the latest attempts to learn where the oil is hiding would involve injecting hundreds of millions of tiny carbon clusters deep into natural underground reservoirs, where changes to their chemical makeup would signal whether they''ve come across oil, water or other substances. The clusters, referred to as "nanoreporters" and roughly 30,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair, also can tell the temperature, pressure and other factors that can help a company zero in on more oil. Major oil companies, including Royal Dutch Shell, BP, ConocoPhillips and Marathon, are funding the research at Rice University. Scientists at Rice say they hope to begin field tests in the next year. The industry is also upgrading the ways it plies more oil out of the earth, techniques that involve heat and chemical injections or gas and water pressure. These methods account for 3 percent of world oil production, according to the International Energy Agency, the Paris-based policy adviser to 28 countries. If oil companies could recover 50 percent of the crude in their fields instead of 35 percent, it would double the world''s proven reserves of about 1.2 trillion barrels, the IEA says. Though it could take a couple of decades to reach 50 percent, even a modest increase in the amount of oil recovered in coming years will alter the debate about peak oil -- the point at which half the world''s reserves have been depleted. The key is obtaining detailed information about what''s going on thousands of feet below the earth''s surface. As they''re pumped with water through a reservoir''s nooks and crannies, the molecular makeup of the Rice University nanoreporters is designed to change depending on what they encounter -- petroleum, hydrogen sulfide, other substances. The nanoreporters have tags similar to bar codes on retail packages that will tell scientists how long they''ve been underground -- three months, six months, nine months, longer. Companies can then pinpoint where oil might be trapped. These days, some companies inject heat or chemicals to reduce the viscosity of oil so it can flow more easily from the reservoir; others rely on pressure from water or gases to force crude out of the complex, geologic formations. One or more of these procedures could be used to extract the oil discovered by the nanoreporters. A multimillion-dollar consortium made up of oil industry companies funds the nanoreporter research. They''re willing to spend on a technology that could unlock billions in profits. Increasing output is especially important for big companies like Exxon Mobil and BP as they find it harder to secure new sources of fossil fuels. National, state-run companies like those in Venezuela and Saudi Arabia hold most of the world’s proven reserves -- about 80 percent. BP says advancements in technology -- including gas injection -- will likely allow it to recover 60 percent of the oil at its massive Prudhoe Bay field in Alaska. The original estimate three decades ago was 40 percent.
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