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March 8th, 2008
Microscopic nanorobots may sound as futuristic as flying saucers and teleportation, but research already is under way at Saudi Aramco to put nanotechnology to work in oil reservoirs throughout the Kingdom.
Many people think of the oil "reservoir" as a tank. But in the petroleum industry, the reservoir is solid rock, as solid as the wall in your office - or even more so. Oil is trapped in tiny pores within these rocks and travels between the pores through small passageways called "pore throats," which are even smaller than the pores.
Nanorobots must be small enough to pass through the pore throats. So anything that moves through the reservoir has to be smaller yet; it has to be at the nanoscale.
Last year, Saudi Aramco's EXPEC Advanced Research Centre (EXPEC ARC) introduced the concept of Resbots, or reservoir robots - tiny nanorobots less than 1/100th the width of a human hair - that could one day be deployed like an army in reservoirs through injected water. During their journey, they would analyse the reservoir pressure, temperature and fluid type, storing information in onboard memory. A number of them then would be retrieved from crude oil at the producing wells to download that information, thus effectively mapping the reservoir.
That form of reservoir mapping would be more effective than any existing method since it would attain direct contact with the reservoir. Eventually, real-time communication and powered mobility also would be added.
However, the long journey to using nanorobots starts with answering a very simple question: What is the largest size Resbot that can go through the reservoir and not get caught in the pore throats? After all, there is no sense in wasting time and money on nanorobots if microrobots can do the job (and those can be manufactured now). On the other hand, there is also no use in deploying those robots only to be caught in the pore throats around the wellbore, where they would be worse than no good, failing to gather information and damaging to the reservoir in the bargain.
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