Advanced materials

July 1, 2017

Stronger, lighter, smarter – Steve Hamlen reports how advanced materials keep pushing the envelope.

Image from iStock.

The use of advanced materials is becoming increasingly important to the international oil and gas industry, as the somewhat Olympian quest for materials that are stronger, lighter, intelligent and even self-healing could help to tackle some of the main challenges facing facilities, products and techniques in the sector.

ICAM’s $100m research budget

In 2012, BP set up the International Centre for Advanced Materials (ICAM) – pledging US$100 million spread over 10 years – which includes four universities collaborating to advance the fundamental understanding and use of materials in the energy industry.

The University of Manchester’s Faculty of Engineering and Physical Sciences is the hub for the ICAM network, which also includes the University of Cambridge, Imperial College London and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC).

Some of the challenges ICAM is researching: finding materials that are more resistant to corrosion; stronger steel; surface interactions; protection; separation; underpinning tools; and structural materials and metallurgy.

Smart coatings

ICAM is researching the potential of smart protective coatings that would flag up damage, and even fix it, before it is visible to the naked eye.

“Two trillion dollars a year – that is the estimated cost of corrosion globally for all industries,” BP said in a report this March. “Unfortunately, coatings are prone to damage/deterioration, particularly in environments such as offshore or in the desert, and to incidental damage incurred, for example, during pipeline transportation. Cracks in the coating compromise the coating’s integrity and shorten its lifespan, raising the likelihood of corrosion, leaks and/or structural failure.”

New research is underway at UIUC into the potential of smart autonomous coatings that would enable engineers in the energy industry to see cracks in the coatings applied to structures, equipment, pipelines and tank walls and signal before overall coating failure occurs. This would drastically improve the ability to identify and manage risk, and significantly reduce maintenance costs.

“Our team embedded microcapsules, containing an indicating agent in their core, in the polymer coating,” said Nancy Sottos, principal investigator at UIUC. “We then scratched the coating to damage it, causing the capsules to rupture, release their core contents and trigger the damage-indicating reaction in the form of a bright red color change or, for use in dark environments such as inside tanks, fluorescence visible under ultraviolet light.”


The next stage of the team’s coatings research involves looking at the self-healing properties in certain materials. Not only would the coating indicate its own damage, but its reaction would enable it to self-repair.

“In fact, the most sophisticated smart coatings would see the environmental factors that contribute to corrosion in situ, such as sun, wind and salt, actually harnessed to indicate and heal the damage that leads to corrosion in the first place,” Sottos added. “Not only would use of such coatings reduce the possibility of significant corrosion issues, it would also reduce the need for human intervention. Inspections will still always be critical, but this self-indicating technology means they will be easier.

“Coatings will last longer and need to be reapplied less often, making them safer and more cost effective by highlighting the damage by color change or fluorescence and letting the inspector know the coating was damaged and healed in a particular spot.”


Nanotechnology is the design and application of engineered or naturally occurring nanoparticles with at least one dimension on the order of 1-100nm to accomplish specific purposes.

“The unique properties of nanoparticles allow them to be used for many purposes in the oil field,” said a paper titled ‘Nanotechnology for Oilfield Applications: Challenges and Effects’ by Hon Chung Lau (National University of Singapore), Meng Yu (Shell Exploration and Production Co.) amd Quoc P. Nguyen (University of Texas at Austin).

“One nanometer is 1-billionth of a meter. A water molecule is approximately one-tenth of a nanometer. A glucose molecule is approximately 1 namometer. So, a nanometer approaches the size of molecules,” says the paper.

“Nanoparticles possess three unique properties. First, their small size enables them to be transported into formation pores not accessible to larger particles. Second, at nanoscale, material properties are size-dependent because of the large surface-area-to-volume ratio. Therefore, nanoparticles can be engineered to contain specific optical, magnetic, interfacial, electrical, or chemical properties to perform specific functions.”

Six areas of study

Most of the proposed applications of nanotechnology in the oil field are in six areas: sensing or imaging, enhanced oil recovery (EOR), gas mobility control, drilling and completion, produced-fluid treatment, and tight-reservoir application, according to Lau et al.

“A review of the literature showed that much of the current research is focused on the performance of nanoparticles (NPs) in the reservoir. Some work is being conducted on the propagation of NPs, and very little work is being conducted on the delivery and recovery of NPs.

Of the six application areas, the authors ranked imaging, drilling through unstable zones, and tight-reservoir applications as having the biggest potential effect. “Using NPs to detect hydrocarbon saturation in a reservoir can have a significant effect on field development planning, such as well placement,” the paper says.

“Similarly, using NPs-enhanced drilling fluid to stabilize and drill through unstable zones can increase the rate of penetration, reduce drilling costs, and minimize environmental effects. Furthermore, using specially designed NPs to image and prop up induced and naturally occurring fractures in tight reservoirs can lead to sweet-spot identification and more prolific wells.”

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