NASA’s Dr David Urban explains to Sophie Davies how rocket engine research is benefiting oil and gas operators.
The oil and gas industry benefits both directly and indirectly from research being carried out by the International Space Station (ISS), an expert from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) said in an interview with InnovOil.
With the majority of all produced oil and gas ultimately destined for use in some kind of combustion system, although the industry benefits “indirectly,” the implications are significant, said branch chief of the Combustion Physics and Reacting Processes Branch at the NASA Glenn Research Center, Dr David Urban.
“ISS combustion science research is improving the efficiency of such processes through study of fundamentals of combustion processes in ideal non-buoyant flames,” he told InnovOil. Combustion experiments at the ISS are currently focused on studying the low-temperature chemistry that controls ignition in engines, including diesel, gasoline, jet and rocket engines, Urban said.
The effect is most notable in piston engines where these are designed and the fuels are selected based on control of low-temperature ignition, according to Urban. In a gas engine this ignition causes “knock” – an undesirable phenomenon where pockets of air and fuel combust outside the intended envelope, and does not burn fuel evenly. In a diesel engine, the inverse is true – this process is used to ignite the fuel, Urban said.
Varying the mixing and the fuel composition – the octane number for gas engines and the cetane number for diesel engines – control ignition. On top of that, detailed chemistry models are used by the ISS to improve the efficiency of these engines, he said. “Our space experiments turn out to be an ideal environment to test such models,” Urban noted.
Interstellar tech transfer NASA's Glenn Research Center, located in the US state of Ohio, researches and develops new technologies for aeronautics and space flight and has produced innovative research, particularly in the areas of fluids and combustion. Its scientists and engineers were also pioneering rocket research before the US officially entered the space industry.
In 2013, NASA signed a contract with Norwegian major Statoil to work together on adapting space technology to the requirements of oil and gas production. Statoil, which had begun exploring more challenging frontier environments, said at the time that it saw an opportunity to apply the kind of technology developed for harsh, remote space environments to the oil and gas field.
In addition, the oil and gas industry also benefits more “directly” from the kind of research currently being carried out by the ISS, through studies of porous media and colloidal systems, Urban added. In particular, this research can have an impact on the production side of the oil and gas industry, he noted. Since the mid-1990s, the NASA Space Life and Physical Sciences programme has supported projects in gravity-dependent colloidal system physics, including through the Light Microscopy Module that has been operating on the space station since 2009.
Many secondary production methods used in the oil and gas industry involve water or surfactant injection, which can produce colloidal systems, Urban said. Colloids form when particles disperse throughout another substance. Work such as this on fluid flow through porous media can also have significantly implications for oil and gas producers.
While the process of knowledge-sharing and transferring technology may perhaps be slower between space agencies and oil and gas explorers than between other groups, identifying where these synergies might be is more important than ever. Oil industry innovators should ensure they look up from subsurface reservoirs every once in a while to the possibilities that may be circling a few hundred kilometres above them.