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Chemist trying to tease more oil out of the earth

Oil is adhesive and getting it out of the earth is a sticky problem. Chemist Theis Sølling has left his job at the University of Copenhagen and moved his family to Qatar to deal with it. He has been hired to figure out ways to squeeze more of the gluey crude up where it is needed.

Maersk Oil decided to spend USD 100 million over a ten year period to set up the ”Maersk Oil Research and Technology Centre” in the Qatari capital Doha.

To establish the laboratory they persuaded Theis Sølling to take leave from his job at the UCPH Department of Chemistry.

According to him the whole oil industry needs improved recovery techniques. No matter how the price of oil rises and falls.

”They used to be able to make money from just digging a hole in the ground. But all the low hanging fruit has been picked, so now there is a compelling need for technological advances”, says academic-turned-petro chemist Theis Sølling.

Every oilfield different

Despite his new job, Sølling hopes to see oil ousted as a source of energy. Yet he is certain, that the need for petroleum products will remain high.

”I have two sons, so I hope to see improvements in renewable energy sources. But oil is essential for non-energy products that range from skateboard wheels over crazy glue to the fertilizers that feed half the world, so we cannot stop extracting it”, explains Sølling.

Right now Søllings lab is researching 26 approaches to increasing the underground flow of oil.

The output can be doubled or even tripled, but every oil field poses a different challenge and finding a suitable method is a lot harder than it may sound.

How to squeeze out more

It may sound as if oil is stored in giant lakes below the ground when you hear words like oilfield and oil reservoir. But it is not. Instead it seeps through a twisting and turning network of channels that are not much wider than a hair. So oil fields are less like a balloon and more like a saturated sponge and companies like Danish Maersk Oil work with three fundamental strategies to bring increasing amounts of oil to the surface.

In primary recovery you drill a hole and stick a pipe into it. The Earth itself squeezes out the oil, much as a brick on a wet sponge. But oil deposits are made of rock- not sponge, so the gravity method releases only 5 to 15 percent of what is there. To get more of it out, you need a push.

For secondary recovery, you pump water below the oil bearing reservoir. As oil is lighter than water, this will force another ten percent or so to rise to the oil well. Recovering twenty to forty percent is not bad, but each additional percent is worth billions. This is why you see this kind of research bankrolled by oil companies.

Following the first two forms of recovery, the remaining oil clings to the walls of miles and miles of poorly connected paper thin pores in the rock. In order to squeeze out more you need to change the properties of either the oil or its grip on these surfaces. This is tertiary recovery.

Novel chemical reactions

Søllings lab is housed in a corner of a huge glass and aluminium complex in the Qatar Science and Technology Park. With a micro CT scanner Sølling adds information on mineral composition to three dimensional X-ray pictures of rock fished up from the holes Maersk is drilling in the Arabian Gulf.

”Previous research has focused on scales from 100 kilometers to several feet. With the technologies that I am assembling in my lab, I can investigate on scales from a centimeter to a nanometer. This should tell me what the rock is made of, exactly how thin and how twisted the pores in it are, and how they are connected. With this information I can figure out how oil and rock interacts in these oil reservoirs”, says Theis Sølling.

The advanced architectural information may be just the missing link Søllings team needs. The next step will be to develop novel chemical reactions to take place underground and shake loose a few more drops of oil.

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