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Getting more from oil

A collaboration between two disparate research groups provides insights into a challenging problem in the field of enhanced oil recovery.

Maintaining the production rate of oil while reduc­ing its environmental footprint is a global challenge and particularly important in Saudi Arabia, where a serendipitous collaboration between two unlikely disciplines is helping to solve a decades-old prob­lem in the area of enhanced oil recovery.

Professor of energy resources and petroleum Hussein Hoteit and professor of bioscience Satoshi Habuchi are bringing together their exper­tise to use polymers to optimize hydrocarbon extraction from subsurface reservoirs.

Hoteit aims to enhance oil recovery using pol­ymer-based solutions.

“When mixed with water, polymers form a viscous fluid that helps to extract oil more effi­ciently,” he explains.

The method, known as polymer flooding, can reduce operational costs and environmental footprint by using less water. However, polymers are very large molecules that may cause opera­tional problems related to their interaction with rock at the microscale.

This is where Habuchi’s team comes in. They are developing new molecular imaging tools, including single-molecule imaging of polymer molecules.

In 2019, the research magazine KAUST Discovery featured a story on the single-molecule polymer imaging carried out by Habuchi and his team. While paging through the magazine, Hoteit came across the story and contacted Habuchi with an idea for collaboration.

“Although I did not have any previous knowl­edge about petroleum engineering, after our first meeting, I clearly saw an opportunity to utilize the tool we had developed,” says Habuchi.

“Our imaging method provides an excellent tool for the characterization of polymer flow in a microscopic space at the molecular level and could provide valuable insights into enhanced oil recovery,” he explains.

The researchers are now looking at other areas where they could work together.

“When we started this collaboration, we had no idea where it could lead,” says Hoteit. “With the suc­cessful technical outcomes and, most importantly, the synergy between our teams and the interest in exchanging knowledge and expertise, we see opportunities to work together on other prob­lems,” he says.

They will focus on issues in energy and the environment, where the problems are complex and require non-traditional approaches. The pair agree that impor­tant factors for the success of this work were the extraordinary facilities and support provided by the Core Labs at KAUST.