This is the fifth installment of a yearlong series designed to stimulate discussion in energy research and development. The Technology Tomorrow Series, comprising articles published in JPT during 2006 and 2007, is available as a collection on OnePetro (SPE-160929-JPT).

While a great deal of hype has surrounded the advances in nanoscience and nanotechnology, in many application areas such as biomedical, space, and information, the promise of commercial success is not guaranteed nor likely to occur for 5 to 10 years. But nanotechnology is an enabler that has proved to be a game changer for exploiting fossil-based fuels and, over the next 30 years, will be a critical component in developing fossil-based energy technologies.

Nanotechnology represents the development and application of materials, methods, and devices in which critical length scale is on the order of 1–100 nm and where critical functionality is not a direct manifestation of the atomic or macroscale proper-ties. Specifically, three broad areas in which such unprecedented properties of the materials will be significant enablers are materials, tools, and devices. These have exploited the unique combinations of mechanical, thermal, electronic, optical, magnetic, and chemical properties observed at these length scales.

Refining and conversion of fossil fuels have been pioneering areas for the development and maturation of nanotechnology principles for the past 20 years. For example, the development of mesoporous catalyst materials such as MCM-41 significantly changed downstream refining. Such applications of nanotechnology are anticipated to continue developing, with the focus shifting to heavy oil and tight gas applications, which will require the physical integration of at least some rudimentary downstream processing with drilling. Developing efficient chemical methods to remove impurities from heavy oil, efficiently implementing gas-to-liquids (GTL) technologies for stranded gas, and exploiting methane hydrates efficiently will continue to build on this extensive knowledge base of the use of nanocatalysts and other down-stream applications of nanotechnology.

Interestingly, oil exploration has used nanotechnology in drilling muds for the past 50 years. The nanoparticles in drilling muds are made of clays and are naturally occurring 1-nm-thick discs of aluminosilicates. These nanoparticles exhibit extraordinary rheological properties in water and oil. But the most recent and promising successes of nanotechnology in drilling are likely to occur with synthetic nanoparticles, where size, shape, and chemical interactions are carefully controlled.

Structural Nanomaterials

Improved lightweight rugged structural materials are crucial for many applications, including weight reduction of offshore platforms, energy-efficient transportation vessels, and improved and better-performing drilling parts. Structural materials can be enhanced significantly by nanotechnology with the addition of engineered nanoparticles and hierarchical strategies inspired and implemented by nanoparticles. The large interfacial area afforded by, and the nanoconfinement resulting from, well-dispersed nanoparticles leads to fundamental property changes in matrix metal, ceramic, and plastic and to a significant alteration of the paradigm of filled systems. These are especially prominent for anisotropic nanoparticles such as rodike nanotubes (e.g., single-walled carbon nanotubes) and disklike clays (e.g., montmorillonite).

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