Qatar UniversityPolymeric gel formulations to plug leaky wells

Polymeric gel formulations to plug leaky wells


Researchers at Qatar University are working to make oil and gas extraction safer and cheaper

Circulation loss is a billion-dollar problem for the world’s oil and gas companies. When drilling for valuable fuels, surrounding rock can fracture causing drilling fluids and other wellbore fluids to escape into the fissures and costing companies’ money, both in lost output and expensive drilling fluids and interruption of operation. This issue can also be dangerous, as it can cause risk of well control and wellbore blow out, as experienced in the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010.

For Qatar, whose economy depends on efficiently extracting these natural resources, these losses eat into its national gross domestic product. The country has the third-largest proven natural gas reserves in the world, and enough proven oil reserves to continue current production volumes for more than 50 years.

This hydrocarbon wealth is why researchers at Qatar University, in collaboration with the University of Oklahoma in the United States, have developed a solution to the circulation-loss problem: a novel polymeric gel to inject into the fractures. The US patent office recently protected this formulation through a Provisional USPTO Application and researchers are working on a second patent linked to their work.

“When drilling for oil, there are many cracks created in the rocks, which leads to the loss of expensive drilling fluids,” explains the Lead Principal Investigator of the project, Ibnelwaleed Ali Hussein, a research professor at Qatar University. The drilling fluids are vital to the drilling process, they are used to cool down the drilling bits and transport cuttings to the surface, according to recent research in this area. When this fluid is lost, it compromises the efficiency and safety of drilling. Dr Hussein and his team developed a gel that fills the cracks – both natural and induced – to stop the fluids from escaping into the surrounding rock, thus curbing losses. In addition, the developed formulation will enhance wellbore strengthening.

Dr Hussein, who leads the project, is part of Qatar University’s Gas Processing Center, which aims to create an in-house reservoir of talent and an engine of local technological innovation. The centre has four main research directions: catalysis and catalytic process, gas treatment and processing, produced water, and upstream processing.

According to its mission statement, the Gas Processing Center’s goal is to ensure that “Qatar has its own, locally sited and controlled source of knowledge and technology to operate, maintain and enhance its industrial facilities – the Qatarisation of knowledge and technology.”

This is in line with Qatar National Vision 2030, which aims to localise knowledge production and foster sustainable development. A major element of this is localising knowledge and innovation, and reducing the country’s reliance on imported labour and foreign technology.

This is also the aim of Dr Hussein’s project, “Development of a Novel Polymer Gel System for Enhancing Wellbore Stabilization and Strengthening of Qatar Oil and Gas Wells,” which is funded by a $600,000 (£462,000) grant from the Qatar National Research Fund. Dr Hussein hopes that the team’s work will benefit local Qatari businesses while also training students.

“Oil and gas are at the heart of the economy, and this research will promote knowledge and technology in this area – any development in this area will be good for the country,” he explains.

Drilling is a major cost element of the oil and gas production operation. “Drilling oil is very expensive, so when you put in lots of drilling fluids and lose them in the cracks, you lose lots of money,” he says. However, the materials required to stop this leakage need to be stable and strong, otherwise “these gels will not last and you lose your money again.”

Under Dr Hussein’s supervision, the team, which consists of co-supervisor Dr Mustafa Nasser, master’s student Mohamed Shamlooh, QU Research Assistant Ahmed Hamza, as well as Saeed Salehi and his PhD student Musaab Magzoub from Oklahoma University, developed the formulation and are currently working on developing the protocol for its injection in reservoirs. The developed reinforced gel outperforms the circulation-loss gels that are currently available in the market.

“When we first started this project in 2018, there were a lot of ideas,” says Mr Shamlooh. “At the beginning we faced a lot of problems, mainly with stability, so we developed mechanisms to sort it out.”

What makes their gel unique, Dr Hussein says, is that they have included functionalized sand particles in their formulation, making it substantially stronger.

The gel is liquid at room temperature, he explains, but solidifies when injected into the rock fissures – where temperatures and pressures are higher – similar to a boiled egg.

The formulation has been extensively tested in the laboratory, and collaborators at the University of Oklahoma in the United States have run simulations to model its performance. The team is currently working on a second patent, which details how the gel should be applied to real fractures and what kind of constraints surround its use.

The next step in their work is to find an industry partner that will allow them to field test their formulation. “We have some local companies here in Qatar that have shown interest in commercialization,” he says. They are in the process of signing a memorandum of understanding with a local company to commercialise the developed formulations in the area of oilfield chemicals and drilling muds.

Mr Shamlooh, who plans to further his studies by pursuing a PhD in this area, hopes to be part of the field-testing experiments to test the developed formulation.

Meanwhile, Dr Hussein is already attempting to enhance their formulation further. “We are looking for different types of formulations, improved ones, so that they can be more environmentally friendly,” he says. This also aligns with the Qatar National Vision 2030, in which environmental development and protection is one of its four pillars. “We expect more patents, publications and students. And we expect the impact to be good.”

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