MESA+ University of Twente
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Volume 4, 2015

In the next five years, oil company BP will invest a total of two million euros in fundamental research by the department of Physics of Complex Fluids of ME SA+. The researchers want to unravel the mystery of how oil is stuck inside porous stone. BP will subsequently use this knowledge to draw more oil from their fields.

Frieder Mugele, Professor of Physics of Complex Fluids with MESA+

“BP is really interested in fundamental research”

“Look, do you see this stone? There is oil in there. That oil has to be extracted from the pores of the stone in some way or another. Ten, fifteen years ago, BP discovered that you can extract additional oil from stone if you push desalinated water through it. This gains five to ten percent more oil, under favorable conditions even twenty percent. One percent is the equivalent of the total oil consumption of one year. So we are talking over quite a bit of oil. The underlying physics and chemistry are unclear. We are going to shed some light on this.”

“You have to know that an oil company almost always shares an oil field with a competitor. If BP would just pump desalinated water into the shared field without warning, the partners would be up in arms. For that reason, you really have to provide evidence to convince the others.’

“BP is really interested in fundamental research. They want to set something up for the long term. BP does not say: discover how that degree of desalination on this oil works on that stone; they are interested in the bigger picture. Once the physical and chemical principles are clear, they can further optimize the fluid composition by themselves. “

“The first test results look promising. For example, thanks to our atomic force microscope we discovered that it matters quite a lot whether we use a monovalent salt such as NaCl or a salt with a divalent cation such as CaCl2.’

“The infrastructure at the MESA+ institute is ideal for us. We make extensive use of their micro- and nanofabrication facilities. There are many research groups with complementary expertise to turn to. For example, I am currently trying to figure out whether we can integrate sensor technology from Guus Rijnders’ group (Inorganic Materials Science, ed) and a micro fluidic platform from Han Gardeniers group (Mesoscale Chemical Systems) into our rock-on-achip system. Then we can take live measurements on the molecules that come loose from our model rock surfaces.”

Ian Collins,

Manager Chemical Sciences Centre of Expertise

“We have a wonderful relationship with the University”

‘Why we are working together with Twente and not with a group from the United Kingdom or the United States? We just scouted out every group worldwide to see which of them could perform the research the best. We invited ten groups to submit a proposal. Six groups responded. We visited them and asked questions. Twente turned out to be the best option.”

“We have a wonderful relationship with the University. They are open to negotiations about intellectual property. For example, they understand that we do not want to publish everything immediately. You can also tell that Frieder Mugele’s group has a lot of experience with companies. That, combined with the structural support of the University, ensures that working with them is a great experience.” “Mugele’s group combines physics with physical chemistry. I am quite captivated with their work with the atomic force microscope and with the micromolecular devices they are building.”

“The oil reservoirs are kilometres wide while the research in Twente takes place on the nanoscale, microscale and milliscale. However, if you understand the physics and chemistry on a molecular level, you can build that into your models and then you can scale up. It is a good thing if your models are based on real physics and chemistry.” “We are, of course, also working on alternatives to oil. But for now, we have to be realistic. In many areas, for example concerning certain plastics, there simply are no good alternatives to oil yet. Thanks to the research performed in Twente we can play for time before the oil runs out.”

“We have been working with Mugele’s group since 2009. Because of that we know that their research is top-notch. They perform really terrific scientific research with publications in Nature and the like. I didn’t dare dream that our collaboration would be so productive.”