Pioneering Partnership Purdue's innovative work with a southern Indiana company intent on enhancing oil recovery
|Purdue's innovative work with a southern Indiana company intent on enhancing oil recovery
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Many minds on a problem can often lead to better solutions. A multidisciplinary approach can pay immediate dividends to partnering companies while furthering long-term solutions to scientific challenges. A new partnership between Purdue and Pioneer Oil is a great example of the collaborative work between a university and a company in its own backyard.
Based in Vincennes, Indiana, Pioneer Oil is seeking to enhance oil recovery efforts in the Illinois basin — an area characterized by its relative shallowness and low salinity compared to the basins in Texas and Canada. Purdue assembled a multidisciplinary team from six departments and three colleges, including researchers from engineering, agriculture and science, as part of a $650,000 effort to help shake more oil loose from basin rocks in an environmentally friendly way. In September 2014, the Enhanced Oil Recovery (EOR) Lab was established at the Bindley Bioscience Center through a five-year memorandum of understanding with Pioneer Oil.
Eric Holloway, senior director of industry research, is charged with matching industrial partners with faculty experts in the College of Engineering. Along with Joe Pekny, professor of chemical engineering and the interim director of the Burton D. Morgan Center for Entrepreneurship, Holloway engaged with Pioneer for several months and helped identify the faculty expertise all over campus.
As the academic lead, Pekny works closely with EOR director Cliff Johnston, professor of soil chemistry. Tommy Sors, the chief scientific liaison for Bindley, has been instrumental in helping to build both the teams and the labs. The collaborators include Bryan Boudouris, assistant professor of chemical engineering; Kendra Erk, assistant professor of materials engineering; Pavlos Vlachos, professor of mechanical engineering; Hilkka Kenttämaa, professor of analytical and organic chemistry; and Ken Ridgway, professor of earth and atmospheric sciences.
Discovery Park initiative
The collaboration is based in Discovery Park, where the recovery lab is located. Under the lead of Johnston, Pioneer funded six one-year research projects in August 2014, all with the goal of enhanced oil recovery efforts. The projects include reservoir characterization of selected hydrocarbon fields in the Illinois basin (Johnston and Ridgway); evaluation and systemic design of surfactants and polymers (Boudouris and Erk); Kenttämaa’s investigations into the development of methodology for the molecular-level characterization of crude oil, brine and other complex mixtures; Vlachos’ evaluation and benchmarking of reservoir modeling along with his experimental evaluation of multiphase flow through porous structures; and Erk’s research into advanced physically associating polymer solutions for enhanced conformance control and flow diversion.
Investigations in chemicals and materials
Boudouris and Erk are investigating the effectiveness of polymers and surfactants to loosen the oil from the rock. For Boudouris, the goal is to remove much of the guesswork from the current industry practices. “One of the biggest challenges has been the proprietary nature of the enhanced oil recovery industry,” he says. “Very little is known about the molecules, or even the molecular structure of the surfactants and polymers, so we had to start from the very beginning.”
Fortunately, Boudouris says, through the collaboration with Pioneer, they’ve been able to “open the black box” to understand why certain mixtures work better than others. “In this way, we’ve been able to start to make deep impacts with respect to securing the local energy future.”
Advances in chemical applications enhance each drilling effort. “Since the enhanced oil recovery effort is applied to existing oil fields, additional drilling exploration and extensive development drilling are not required,” Erk says. “Pioneer has positive savings both in terms of economic and environmental costs.”
Erk says chemical flooding methods use water-based solutions to essentially “wash” the reservoir, removing the trapped oil in the process, which is recovered at the production well. Her materials engineering team characterizes the rheological, or flow, properties of the materials. Boudouris’ group focuses on the molecular characterization and design of the polymers used in the extraction process. The expense of these components is critical to Pioneer’s success. More effective polymers and surfactants used in lower volumes could produce the same amount of oil, improving the business model.
Working within the lab space at Bindley and collaborating across campus has helped Erk apply cutting-edge research to an emerging field. “We didn’t have much knowledge of enhanced oil recovery methods before Pioneer approached Purdue,” she says. “However, the fundamental research that we do in our labs is directly related to the fundamental science that drives the mechanisms of the process. By collaborating, we can merge our chemistry and rheology expertise to tackle this new problem in a way that doesn’t duplicate any resources and actually enhances our outcomes.”
Campus and company benefits
In establishing relationships with Pioneer and helping to assemble the multidisciplinary teams, both Holloway and Pekny have lauded the mutual benefits of the partnership. “We’re really providing a strong interface between the way Pioneer has to do business in an environmentally friendly way and be profitable in this age of rapidly falling oil prices,” Pekny says. “The faculty maintains a strong awareness of Pioneer’s needs, while making progress in terms of long-term research. They are also mindful that they have to make a difference to Pioneer in the short term, too.”
Built on the philosophy of bringing the best people across campus to solve a particular problem, the partnership is not only benefiting the company but also building on Purdue’s reputation in an area for which it has not been historically known. “We’re using this opportunity to re-energize oil and gas research initiatives at Purdue,” Holloway says.
What’s more, by enhancing the economic output of an Indiana company, the partnership addresses one of Purdue’s land-grant missions. Pioneer Oil’s size and flexibility also helps to maximize the collaboration, Holloway says. Bryan Clayton, the petroleum engineer, and Steve Miller, the chief financial officer, are leading the Pioneer team, resulting in a streamlined, efficient process.
“This is Purdue coming together at its multidisciplinary finest with teams of scientists and engineers working together to solve problems,” Holloway says.