New Skoltech lab revolutionizes approach to difficult oil deposits

The Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology (Skoltech) unveiled its Center for Hydrocarbon Recovery’s new state-of-the-art laboratory on June 6 during the annual Startup Village, when Deputy Prime Minister Arkady Dvorkovich and Skolkovo Foundation president Victor Vekselberg visited the lab together with Gazprom Neft CEO Alexander Dyukov.

Deputy Prime Minister Arkady Dvorkovich (centre) visiting the new lab on Tuesday during Startup Village. Photo: Sk.ru.

The new lab is devoted to research and development into technologies for producing oil and gas that cannot be extracted using traditional methods: so-called hard to recover and unconventional resources, including brownfields, heavy oil, tight oil, carbonate and low permeable reservoirs. Scientists will study the processes that occur in oil reservoirs at depths of several kilometers, and apply the results of their research to develop new solutions for the production of conventional and unconventional resources.

Vekselberg said the Skoltech lab would result in new generations of top specialists with highly sought-after skills. “With the participation of Skoltech and the Skolkovo Foundation, we will certainly succeed in turning a new page in the development of Russia’s oil resources, and we will remain competitive in the difficult situation right now on international markets,” he said.

Dvorkovich echoed his words. “The idea behind having a technical university at Skolkovo is for this centre of learning and science to transform fundamental knowledge into practice,” said the deputy prime minister, adding that he had high hopes for the lab’s results. 

Mikhail Spasennykh, director of the Skoltech Center for Hydrocarbon Recovery, pictured in the lab. Photo: Sk.ru.

Mikhail Spasennykh, director of the Skoltech Center for Hydrocarbon Recovery, explained the purpose and workings of the lab to Sk.ru during a recent visit to the lab, which is located in the Renova Lab R&D centre at Skolkovo (Skoltech’s new purpose-built campus is still under construction).

“In most conventional deposits, oil is displaced using water,” he said. “In heavy oil deposits, the oil is heated up to reduce its viscosity, but currently, most of the reserves remain in the reservoirs.”

Finding the best method

Methods for increasing oil recovery are often based on injecting surfactants, polymers, gases, hot water or steam into the reservoir, or pumping air into it to initiate in situ combustion, which significantly increases oil recovery. The new lab will enable Skoltech scientists to test various technologies on samples from specific deposits to develop the best method to apply in particular reservoirs. About half of the lab space is taken up by equipment for studying processes and creating new technologies related to thermal enhanced oil recovery methods. The equipment was built specifically for Skoltech in Canada, and designed by two professors from the Schulich School of Engineering at the University of Calgary.

“The lab can characterize which enhanced recovery technology is suitable for a given reservoir,” said Raj Mehta, professor of oil and gas engineering at the Schulich School of Engineering.  “From low pressure reservoirs like in Tatarstan, to very deep high-pressure reservoirs in Siberia or other parts of Russia, you can characterize which particular technology will be more economical and most effective to produce oil,” he said. 

The lab is equipped with two combustion tube systems of different sizes and rated for different pressures and a ramped-temperature oxidation system. Skoltech’s high-pressure system is one of just two in the world, the other being at Calgary itself, said Alexey Cheremisin, deputy director for experimental research at the Skoltech Center for Hydrocarbon Recovery.

“The idea is to learn through experimenting in the lab what parameters are needed to extract the oil at the deposit itself: how fast the combustion front is moving if we apply in situ combustion; how the oil’s viscosity is changing; how heat generation or loss is taking place. All of these parameters are determined in the experiment, and on that basis, a model for developing the deposit is created,” said Spasennykh.

Multiple experiments are already underway in the state-of-the-art lab. Photo: Sk.ru.

 

The laboratory also has equipment for studying the physical properties and chemical composition of geological materials and hydrocarbon fluids, including a geomechanical press for studying the mechanical properties of geological materials at reservoir conditions.

The press can simulate conditions equal to those at six kilometers below the Earth’s surface – beyond the depth of most known deposits. It allows scientists to study samples of reservoir rock up to 10 cm in diameter and at confining and pore pressures of up to 140 megapascals (20,000 psi), said Cheremisin. It can also be used to study mechanical properties, porosity and permeability of rock formations in temperatures ranging from zero to 200o Celsius.

“Of the equipment that will really be used in the next few years to study the mechanical properties of formations and processes of hydraulic fracturing treatment [fracking], the press installed at the Skoltech lab will be the most powerful and universal,” said Spasennykh. 

Alexey Cheremisin, deputy director for experimental research at the Skoltech Center for Hydrocarbon Recovery. Photo: Sk.ru.

“Lab research makes it possible to optimize and select the reagents that make it possible to maximize efficiency in extracting oil and gas from the reservoirs. This is much cheaper than carrying out field experiments,” said Cheremisin.

A separate space in the lab will be given over to the research of gas hydrate deposits, and will contain a large walk-in climate chamber that will enable scientists to study permafrost materials at realistic natural conditions, without thawing them.

“This is work with a focus on the long-term prospects: extracting gas from gas hydrate deposits, as well as safe drilling on the Arctic shelf and in permafrost zones,” said Cheremisin. “One of the projects is aimed at the creation of technology for replacing methane hydrates with carbon dioxide in order to solve two tasks: the recovery of gas and the utilization of carbon dioxide,” he added.

Made in Canada

The lab equipment for R&D into thermal methods of enhanced oil recovery was made in Alberta, Canada and designed by specialists from the University of Calgary, where researchers and engineers have been working on systems for testing thermal methods for more than 40 years.

“The pioneers of thermal methods are the Canadians,” said Spasennykh. “The province of Alberta produces a volume of oil comparable to the biggest oil producing regions of Russia. But all the deposits there are heavy oils [oil sands], so Canadian universities and companies developed methods that are now in use and that we want to use here.”

Russia also has its own history of thermal methods developed for unconventional resources, but demand here was less urgent, he explained.

“In Russia, our colleague Professor Arkady Bokserman and his team were doing similar work on thermal methods in the Soviet Union at the same time as they were being developed in Canada. However, the Soviet Union had a lot of conventional oil reserves, so the demand here for these technologies was lower: so long as you have conventional oil, there’s no need to extract heavy oil or tight oil. But as conventional deposits are exhausted, the demand for these methods is growing,” said Spasennykh.

Schulich School of Engineering professors Raj Mehta (left) and Gord Moore, who designed the equipment. Photo: Sk.ru.

“There is a huge potential for thermal recovery methods and UR [unconventional resources] methods – for example, in situcombustion, high pressure air injection, steam, carbon dioxide, polymers, and hybrid processes – because worldwide we have about a 4 to 5 percent decline of oil production per year from conventional reservoirs,” said Calgary’s Mehta, who has overseen the building of the Skoltech lab from its beginning, visiting the site about a dozen times during its development.

“There are many similarities between Canada and Russia, in that both countries have very tough, difficult-to-produce reservoirs,” he said. “These technologies will help us produce more oil in an economic manner to sustain increasing world demand,” he said.

The team at the University of Calgary has built lab equipment for other customers before, but never before on the scale of the Skoltech lab. The equipment was designed, commissioned and tested in Calgary, in collaboration with representatives of Skoltech who received hands-on research and equipment operational experience in Canada. It was then disassembled, packaged and shipped to Russia where it was reassembled in the Skoltech lab, which will employ about 30 researchers, as well as PhD and Masters students by the end of June, when the lab will be up and running at full steam.

Experience exchange

The lab is equipped with two combustion tube systems. Photo: Sk.ru.

“You have technologies we don’t have, so there’s certainly a synergy that can be gained by the number of scientists that are located here,” said Gord Moore, a professor at the Schulich School of Engineering’s department of chemical and petroleum engineering at University of Calgary.

“We are much more specific to this technology, but there are a number of tests that are routine over here that we don’t perform – we don’t have the analytical capabilities to perform them, so I think the synergy between the two groups is excellent,” he said.

“When you look at the analytical instruments that Skoltech is putting together, the capabilities will be much wider than those of our lab,” said Moore. “Our lab brings the capabilities of going to high temperature and high pressure fairly routinely, and most other labs don’t have that technology, but we don’t have a lot of the analytical instruments, and they will certainly give information that is going to be very valuable to understand the process.”

Both the Russian and Canadian sides agree that their cooperation, which began in November 2014 when the two universities signed a five-year renewable agreement, has been mutually beneficial.

“When we initially met a small team from Skoltech, we were very excited that they meant business,” recalled Mehta. “They were equally or even more qualified in certain areas than us, so it was a pleasure to work together. We will learn as much from them as they will learn from us,” he added.

Four Skoltech students have already completed study exchange programmes at Calgary, not only in studies related to oil and gas, but in biomedical engineering too. “They were excellent,” said Mehta. 

The agreement also includes a teaching exchange, and Calgary professors including Moore and Mehta have taught courses at Skoltech.

In addition, Skoltech has acted as something of a hub of knowledge exchange between Calgary and Russian entities. Later this month, representatives of Surgut University are due to visit the University of Calgary labs in collaboration with Skoltech and the World Bank.

“They want to expand their petroleum capabilities in Surgut, where Skoltech will be the main partner, so we’ll be working together alongside the World Bank to facilitate this opportunity,” said Mehta.

“Combining our expertise produces a synergy in which we are stronger together than separately,” said Spasennykh. “We don’t plan to part ways after the lab is set up, but to continue working on the basis of the two labs.”

His Canadian partners concurred.

“This is just the beginning, in our opinion,” said Mehta.

Text – Shura Collinson, SK.ru

Photos – Vitaly Shustikov, SK.ru

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