It seems counterintuitive how big advancements in engineering, medicine, chemistry, and other sciences are brought upon by the study of the extremely small, quantum level nanoparticles.
Nanotechnology and nanoscience have been applied to many industries, but to help us understand its role in oil and gas applications, Matmatch had the chance to talk to a nanotechnology scientist, inventor, and nFluids Inc.’s CEO, Dr. Jeff Forsyth.
To kick things off, tell us a little bit about nFluids and how you guys started?
So, we started as a spin-off from the University of Calgary in 2012. We had a research-based prototype. We then piloted our materials in drilling operations and realised four key benefits:
- up to 90% fluid loss reduction allowing the drilling fluid to do its job
- up to 60% increase in wellbore strengthening
- up to 50% increase in lubrication
- up to 30% reduction in oil on drill cuttings, which favours the recycling of expensive base oils in the drilling fluids.
During this period we have also developed nano tracers suitable for water or oil-based fluids with detection at the ppb level, which we believe could have numerous industrial applications. Our technology platform has also shown properties which lead us to believe that there would be applications in oil & water separation, hydrocarbon recovery and stimulation.
Most recently, we are very excited to have been working with a nano-agronomy company in order to utilize our particles in agriculture for the purpose of improving yield and disease resistance.
That’s quite impressive! So how does nanotechnology work in the drilling process?
Essentially, the drilling fluid allows you to lubricate the drill bit while it cuts and carries solids to the surface. Nanoparticles are forced with the solid components in the drilling fluid to the sidewall of the well. By doing so, it produces what’s called the filter cake.
What is a filter cake?
The filter cake is formed when drilling fluid is forced against the wellbore under pressure. The filtrate is the liquid that passes through the filter cake and into the near-wellbore, leaving the filter cake on the sidewall of the borehole. Drilling muds are tested to determine the filtration rate and filter-cake properties.
Cake properties such as cake thickness, toughness, slickness and permeability are important because the cake that forms on permeable zones in the wellbore can cause stuck pipe (differential sticking) and increase friction and other drilling problems.
Why is the addition of nanoparticles in the lubrication fluid important?
When nanoparticles are added to the drilling fluid, they fill in the gaps in the filter cake through physio-chemical interactions, further reducing the filtrate into the near-wellbore. The resulting filter cake formed with nanoparticles is generally thinner, stronger, smoother and less permeable.
So for the pay zone (oil & gas producing areas), this is extremely advantageous as the potential for formation damage is greatly reduced due to greatly reduced liquid and solids migration. In other areas of the wellbore, the key advantages are related to wellbore strengthening.
This thinner, stronger filter cake means less friction. This helps to eliminate differential sticking, which might cause the drill string to buckle.
Right, so how does drilling faster benefit the operation as a whole? How can it be a game-changer for drilling oil and gas?
Drilling faster with fewer problems is optimal simply because you pay a day rate for the drilling rig regardless of whether you are drilling or not i.e. stuck in the hole or experiencing high levels of friction.
In recent work in the Williston Basin in North Dakota, we successfully used our nGlide Nano lubricants in NaCl-based drilling fluids in the Bakken Formation in over 120 wells which has reduced torque and drag by up to 15%, used 30% less lubricant and drilled the lateral pay zone sections 25-50% quicker at a lower cost than conventional lubricants.
Offshore, we utilize our nForcer product in oil-based drilling fluids, which reduces fluid loss, strengthens the wellbore and provides lubricity. It also has the ability to recover and recycle 30% of the drilling fluid oil.
Right. So, could you explain your manufacturing process?
We have nine patents already. What we do is control crystallization to create a saturated condition. Imagine you take a cup and put sugar into hot water. Keep adding the sugar and you get to a point where you cannot dissolve anymore. That’s called a saturation point. That’s when your crystals start to grow. At that point, we cap that with another material.
That serves two purposes, control the size and more importantly, suspend those materials in a homogenous fashion inside the carrier liquid.
What makes nanomaterials special is once you get into the nanodomain at around five nanometres in size, it is no longer subject to gravity. That’s great from a sedimentation perspective because you don’t want to see fractionation or sedimentation in your product, regardless of performance.
Why can’t we use typical commercial lubricants available in the industry? How are those nanoparticle-based lubricants better?
Normal lubricants build up what’s called a boundary layer to enable good lubrication, but as more and more wells are being drilled under harsher, deeper, hotter conditions, those boundary layers often break down.
Nanoparticles tend to migrate into the asperities of the metal surfaces i.e. the surface roughness. They also continue to provide lubrication, when traditional lubricants start to lose their effectiveness under harsh conditions.
How safe are these nanoparticles? Are they toxic to human beings?
We’ve done what is called microtox testing. Microtox testing essentially looks at the toxicity with some indicator organisms. We passed those tests. In the natural environment, there are numerous nano-sized materials that migrate into the human body.
There are also various materials containing nanoparticles, such as coatings, paints and pigments, catalytic additives, and cosmetics.
How do you see nFluids’ future?
We’re interested in the right applications. We’re scientists and we work where the interest is and where we think we’re needed.
Though we do realize that oil and gas have had some challenges. It’s a little bit like the tobacco industry. With the arrival of e-mobility and the movement towards renewable energy-powered industries, big companies have been looking at diversification in the portfolio towards renewables for quite a while.
There has to be an integrated future. That’s our opinion and we’re willing as a company to move with that. Our products could be used as lubricants in windmills, and we could definitely look at a variety of different applications like that.