03 February 2016
New professor to improve oil extraction through chemistry
Oil does not always flow easily, so extracting crude from reservoirs deep underground can be a challenge. Theis Sølling, a new chemistry professor at the University of Copenhagen, will be conducting research into efficient and environmentally friendly oil and gas recovery, in addition to his other professorial duties.
Sølling is a former associate professor at the Department of Chemistry. He comes to the professorship after three years of work for Maersk Oil in Qatar. While in Qatar, he was engaged in setting up a laboratory specializing in porous materials research, with the aim of improving oil extraction and recovery, known as Enhanced Oil Recovery (EOR). His first task at the university will be to establish a new bachelor’s level Oil and Gas Chemistry Specialization.
Inevitable to phase out oil as energy source. But...
Despite his new and previous postings, Sølling sees it as inevitable that oil will be phased out as an energy source. However, while the burning of hydrocarbons for energy may cease, he is convinced that demand for oil will remain high.
“Oil and natural gas are critical raw materials used to produce everything from pharmaceuticals, varnishes and glues to skateboard wheels, colostomy bags and the fertilizers that keep the majority of this planet’s population fed. I am certain that demand will increase even as we turn to renewables and limit the use of fossil fuels for energy,” says Sølling.
Environmentally sound oil and gas extraction
A central aim of the new programme is to train chemists who will be able to ensure that existing reserves are used optimally. This means that, in addition to other skills, students will learn to develop efficient methods for oil and gas extraction in environmentally friendly ways.
“In time, oil and gas extraction will extend to sensitive areas, including Arctic environments. By deploying methods that can recover more oil from existing fields, we can protect some of this planet’s most sensitive natural areas,” says Sølling
Oil hidden in cracks as fine as hair
Talk of oil reservoirs and oil wells might conjure up the impression that oil is pooled in massive subterranean lakes that are simply waiting to be tapped. But this is far from the case. Oil flows through porous rock, in fine capillaries that can be as tightly structured as board chalk. Thus, an oil field is more like a sponge than a water balloon. Oil companies work with three fundamental oil recovery strategies.
Like a brick atop a soaking sponge
Primary recovery is like placing a brick atop a soaked sponge. When drilling down to oil beneath hundreds of meters of soil and stone, the weight of the earth squeezes oil up to the surface. However, oil reservoirs are in stone, not sponge, so this method does not recover all the oil. In the best cases, primary recovery extracts upwards of 70 percent, but often it is as low as five percent. For increased extraction, the oil requires a push.
Lifting with water
In secondary recovery, water is pumped beneath the reservoir. Because oil is lighter than water, it rises, and an additional 20 percent of a reservoir can be forced to the well. A 20 percent hike is not all that bad, but every extra percent can be worth billions. This is where the demand for chemists to develop tertiary recovery comes into play.
Trillions to win from just a few percent
When the first two recovery methods have been exhausted, residual oil is left, bound to rock by capillary pressure. For further recovery, either the properties of the oil must change or those of the rock to which it is clinging. These efforts can either lower the viscosity of the oil or transform the composition of the surfaces to which the oil is attached. This is known as tertiary recovery.
Urges students to aim for postings abroad and in industry
Theis Sølling looks forward to combining his industrial experience with instruction and academic research. He also hopes that he is able to, by way of example, encourage future generations of chemists to work abroad for either shorter or longer stays, within the private sector in particular. Sølling is married to Birgitte. They have two sons together, aged 7 and 14.