TULSA, OK - Nearly two out of every three barrels of oil discovered in the United States remain trapped underground after conventional recovery operations. This staggering amount of remaining oil - approximately 200 billion barrels - can be one of America's best hopes for greater energy security if new technologies can be developed to recover it.
Often, however, the "left behind" oil is in regions of the reservoir that are difficult to access and the oil is held tightly in place within tiny rock pores by capillary pressures that resist many traditional oil production practices.
Now, as part of its program to develop ways to free this unrecovered oil, the Department of Energy's Fossil Energy research program is adding three new projects to be carried out by three of the Nation's top petroleum engineering universities:
Louisiana State University, Baton Rogue, LA will receive $1.2 million of Energy Department funds to develop a new gas injection enhanced oil recovery process. The goal is to effectively recover trapped oil by boring a producing well horizontally near the bottom of the oil-bearing formation, then injecting gas through vertical wells to create a gas zone that will force the oil to drain into the producer well.
Oklahoma University, Norman, OK will receive nearly $1.5 million to focus on microbial enhanced oil recovery. University researchers are developing more effective and cost efficient biosurfactants - microbial organisms that behave like detergents to sweep oil from a reservoir.
University of Houston, Houston, TX will receive nearly $1.2 million to develop an inexpensive surfactant - another soap-like chemical - that can free oil trapped in carbonate formations. Carbonate formations hold vast amounts of unrecovered oil - perhaps 20 billion barrels in three major Texas regions alone - but they pose difficult challenges for producers. Surfactants were developed for sandstone reservoirs, but now University of Houston researchers want to determine if, under the right conditions, they can be effective in carbonate reservoirs.
As with much of the Department's oil technology program, these enhanced recovery projects are aimed at assisting the smaller independent U.S. oil producers who conduct virtually no research on their own. Most of the unrecovered oil in the U.S. resides in fields operated by independent producers.
Today, small independent businesses account for more than 50 percent of domestic petroleum production in the lower 48 states. Most are facing increasing economic and technical difficulties associated with harder-to-recover resources. They rely on the partnership with the Department of Energy and its R&D network to develop novel approaches and improved methods to enhance oil recovery.
The Department's Oil Technology Program support advanced "reservoir efficiency processes" that offer novel approaches to complex challenges confronting U.S. producers. As our domestic oil resources continued to be depleted, the applications of the methods and processes developed from this program will become more crucial.