An industry based on small science grapples with a big problem
February 06, 2012
As a researcher at the Indian Institute of Technology in Mumbai, Sushanta Mitra wanted to know what substances worked best to coax oil out of porous rock samples. His experiments using traditional core flooding techniques – in which water, say, or a polymer is injected into a small cylinder of sandstone or carbonate in order to force trapped oil out – were funded by India’s Oil and Natural Gas Corporation, but they invariably left the researcher grasping.
No matter what substance was injected into a rock sample, the results offered only a partial window into the mechanics of enhanced oil recovery. It was impossible to tell, for instance, how an introduced fluid behaved – and therefore how much oil might be recovered – once it was injected into the microscopic crevices and pathways that contain molecules of oil and gas. “Everything is operating at the pore scale, but there was no means to look at it,” Mitra says.