Nanotechnology: Coming of Age or Heralding a New Age?
- Derek Mathieson (Baker Hughes)
- Document ID
- Society of Petroleum Engineers
- Journal of Petroleum Technology
- Publication Date
- September 2010
- Document Type
- Journal Paper
- 18 - 19
- 2010. Copyright is retained by the author. This document is distributed by SPE with the permission of the author. Contact the author for permission to use material from this document.
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In his seminal lecture, “There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom,” given at the 1959 annual meeting of the American Physical Society, American physicist Richard Feynman posed the possibility of direct manipulation of single atoms as a form of synthetic chemistry more powerful than the methods in use at the time. His revolutionary ideas were an invitation to enter a new field of physics, describing a set of challenges and possible solutions that would later be realized in the fields of microelectronics, microelectromechanical systems, microbiology, and be stretched even further by nanotechnology (a term introduced much later by Norio Taniguchi of the Tokyo Science University in 1974).
Carbon nanotechnology, made famous by the discovery of the buckyball (carbon sphere) in 1985, moved apace through the 1990s with the development of carbon nanotubes and, in the last few years, has experienced an exponential increase in research activities with graphene-based structures. Graphene, extracted from graphite, is a one-atom-thick sheet of carbon atoms, arranged in a honeycomb-style lattice pattern. Because of its unique electrical, magnetic, and other properties, graphene has grown central to much of the research into nanotechnology.
Today, there are some ambitious programs under way in the E&P sector exploring nanosensors and even nanorobots, but I would like to focus on carbon nanotechnology research as it relates to commercially available products and its near-term impact across many product lines.
At first glance, it might not seem obvious why nanotechnology is relevant to our industry. But the challenges in frontier areas such as deep water, unconventional hydrocarbons, and high-pressure/high-temperature applications nearly all have complex material and chemistry gaps that must be addressed to provide reliable technology solutions for these environments. In some cases, no solutions exist with the standard tool kit—so we enter the domain of the molecular designer or nanotechnologist.
So what are the basics of nanotechnology research? A nanometer (nm) is one-billionth (10−9) of a meter. A working definition of nano is “the purposeful engineering of matter at scales of less than 100 nanometers to achieve size-dependent properties and functions.” The enormous potential for carbon nanotechnology in the oil field lies largely in the design or modification of materials using the combination of the unique physical properties of the building blocks with the added chemical flexibility of benzyne-type systems (highly reactive organic species). For example, a carbon nanotube has: (1) a mechanical strength 100 times stronger than steel; (2) a mechanical modulus 100,000 times stiffer than steel; (3) an electrical conductivity similar to copper; and (4) a thermal conductivity approximately 2.5 times greater than diamond. Not a bad initial specification list.
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