Electromagnetically-assisted Catalytic-upgrading of Heavy Oil (ECHO)

Lead Research Organisation: University of Nottingham
Department Name: Faculty of Engineering


In order to ensure future energy security, sources of fuel that are considered unconventional today must be developed, including the existing vast heavy oil and bitumen reserves. Although there are large reserves of such oils in Canada and Venezuela, the techniques could potentially be applied in other parts of the World, e.g. sub surface recovery in partially depleted wells in the North Sea.

In order to minimise the environmental impact of extraction of these reserves as much of the processing should be done sub-surface as possible, thereby reducing the requirement for expensive hydrogen and additional energy needed in 'surface upgrader' refineries. This project aims to develop an oil upgrading 'plant' to run underground, in conjunction with the oil recovery process itself, such that it has minimal surface footprint and confines emissions underground. In order to do this we will deploy several technologies in combination: Toe-to-Heel Air Injection (THAI) is an in-situ combustion technique which combusts a small fraction of the oil to generate heat for thermal upgrading and cracking of oil molecules to lighter components required for transportation fuels. Previous work has shown that upgrading is potentially possible underground but that a new solution is necessary to achieve the optimum conditions for downhole processing. In particular, the temperature achieved may not be high enough to achieve the required improvement, therefore we will develop and trial the application of microwave and ohmic heating to increase the well temperature and deliver further upgrading. The addition of a catalyst to the well can bring added value to the product oil by facilitating catalytic cracking reactions which improve its properties. However the application of the above techniques in combination has not been previously investigated, hence this project will combine thermal and electromagnetic approaches to create a new hybrid technology capable of efficient downhole upgrading, and aims to optimise the catalyst formulation to use with this technology. The special and difficult conditions that exist underground require the development of a novel, idiosyncratic catalyst to meet the particular needs of the new process.

The work is expected to deliver new reactor designs capable of combining heavy oil upgrading with microwave and/or ohmic heating and novel catalyst formulations that could be deployed in-situ within the oil well. Laboratory scale upgrading data will be collected to determine how well these techniques work together and process scale up designs proposed that could potentially be applied to take the technology in to the oil reservoir.

The proposed technologies are expected to deliver a number of potential benefits including improved energy security, wealth creation and employment in the energy extraction industry, reduced carbon dioxide emissions, reduced external energy requirement in extracting the oil, UK held intellectual property and patents.

Planned Impact

The work will benefit a number of industries. The oil industry would benefit from the combined technologies; the 'holy grail' would be if the upgraded bitumen has an API gravity approaching 20 degrees, where it can be pumped without using diluent, providing substantial cost savings. Also, recovery and in-situ upgrading of heavy oil requires a breakthrough to bring down the processing cost and make it more competitive with traditional light oils. Petrochina are a project partner and they have invested heavily in heavy oil reservoirs in Canada and also in their own research programmes at Research Institute of Petroleum Exploration and Development in Beijing (RIPED), where our collaborators in the company are based. Subject to the necessary licence agreements, they would directly exploit the research results gained through this project, for example in pilot and field trials of the technology. The Steam Oil Company have interests in sub surface recovery from partially spent oil wells in the UK North Sea and would advise on how the developed technologies could be deployed offshore with a view to future exploitation. The research will deliver laboratory data and scale up designs by the end of the proposed project, which could be taken forward to commercialisation by industry through pilot studies (next 3 years following the project end) and field trials (within 5 years of the project end). This could lead to more efficient resource extraction, lower energy requirement per barrel of oil, further sub-surface upgrading and reduced carbon dioxide emissions.

Further to the project partners, we have links and collaborations with a wide network of companies such as Johnson Matthey, BP, Shell, whom would be kept informed about developments in the project (in the public domain) via 'user days' or workshops, which would aim to involve a wider range of companies through the course of the project. Catalyst companies would gain impact from the potential to use the developed catalyst formulations to produce commercial catalysts for deployment in the oil industry, and associated increase in business.

The work will be of interest to the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC), which has a duty to make sure the UK has secure, clean, affordable energy supplies and promote international action to mitigate climate change. The research will be beneficial to the UK and the general public, for example through potentially more secure energy supplies, potential to control climate change through more efficient resource extraction and potentially cheaper fuel bills than might occur with alternative extraction techniques. The generation of patents and licences of the technology will ensure that the developed technologies are economically beneficial to the UK, whilst enhancing the reputation of UK academic research and technology transfer to international industry. Enhanced Oil Recovery Techniques that could be applied to maintain North Sea oil production could also sustain for a longer period the revenue from this valuable resource for the UK economy. Birmingham and Nottingham are partners in the UK Energy Research Accelerator, a major government investment to increase the profile of energy research in a group of 6 Midlands Universities. Although not directly part of that programme, this research will increase the kudos associated with energy research programmes in the Midlands. The project team are experienced in outreach, e.g. a previous project featured on BBC The One Show, and will also disseminate this project through radio/TV interviews and school visits, which will be facilitated by the Press Office of the relevant Universities.

Research staff working on the project will gain a deep technical and soft skills training and research experience which will equip them for future careers as high flying academics or they will go in to the oil or catalyst industries in leading positions.
Description We have found that THAI-produced oil will absorb microwaves without introducing an absorber from outside.
We have found that a hydrotreating catalyst will give rise to catalytic, as well as pyrolytic, upgrading under microwave heating.
We can fabricate carbon nano-onions from cheap heavy oil raw material.
We have found that there was significant hydrogen production associated with catalytically-assisted catalysts.
Exploitation Route Findings may be implemented in future field trials of THAI-CAPRI.
Novel reactor designs may be used by others.
Sectors Chemicals,Energy