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Institute builds advanced oil recovery savvy in Wyoming

University of Wyoming

Wyoming has been producing oil for more than a hundred years, which means the state has a lot of mature oil fields -- fields that stopped producing a long time ago.

Since its founding in 2004, the Enhanced Oil Recovery Institute has been working to get those fields back into production using innovative techniques for recovering the oil. Now, the Institute has new equipment that it hopes will improve its existing capabilities, and encourage more investment in the approach.

STEPHANIE JOYCE: A typical oil well only flows for a couple years, maybe a decade. After it stops flowing naturally, companies often inject water to increase the reservoir pressure, and get more oil out. But even with that, only 20 to 30 percent is recovered. David Mohrbacher says that’s where his institute’s techniques come into play.

MOHRBACHER: The oil is trapped in rocks -- a lot like oil and grease gets trapped in your clothes. So, these technologies are like detergent.

JOYCE: The detergent is typically either carbon dioxide or chemicals, or both. Mohrbacher says using those, companies can recover at least another 10 percent of the oil -- roughly equivalent to the amount of oil produced in each of the previous stages. That adds up to quite a bit of crude.

MOHRBACHER: Wyoming produced close to 120 million barrels of oil a year in the early 1980s. Currently, we’re producing about half that amount -- 60 million barrels a year. Twelve percent of that production comes from enhanced oil recovery.

JOYCE: The enhanced oil recovery process isn’t as simple as just going out and pumping a bunch of carbon dioxide down a well though. Every reservoir is different, and figuring out how to get the oil out of any particular one requires some experimentation. Mohrbacher says the Institute’s new lab facilities at the University of Wyoming’s Energy Innovation Center will help with that. In addition to a shiny new workspace, the lab has over a million dollars of new, highly-specialized equipment.

MOHRBACHER: We’ve added machines that help us analyze oil, water and rock and determine how effective some our advanced technology might be in the field.

JOYCE: Sheena Xie manages the lab -- and she’s eager to show off her new toys, starting with a machine called a slim tube.

SHEENA XIE: Those are 60 feet of coil. Inside, it’s glass beads. And we put oil in it at the pressure and temperature to simulate the reservoir.

JOYCE: Then they add carbon dioxide gas until the oil starts flowing. Xie says knowing precisely how much gas they need to pump into the reservoir saves companies a lot of time and money. That’s not the only reason to do testing in the lab though. Xie says injecting the wrong chemicals or fluids down a well can be ineffective at best, and ruinous at worst. For example, injecting water into a clay-rich formation can close the pores in the rock, effectively sealing off the oil.

XIE: That’s called formation damage. So this type of tests, you can test in the laboratory.

JOYCE: The Institute had the capacity to do those tests before, but Xie says the new equipment is much more precise.

XIE: The older ones we had, we made ourselves before, and so not as accurate. And without those, it’s going to be very money consuming, time-consuming.

JOYCE: Most small oil companies, like many of those operating in Wyoming, wouldn’t have access to the equipment -- homemade or otherwise -- without the Institute’s lab. Mohrbacher, the director, says that makes it all the more important as industry shifts to more complex techniques for recovering oil.

MOHRBACHER: With the number of mature fields in Wyoming, you ask what the potential impact could be. And I’ll go back to real round numbers -- 1 to 2 billion barrels of incremental oil, which is a lot of oil considering Wyoming’s only produced 8 billion in the history of the oil business in the state.

JOYCE: In other words, enhanced oil recovery is only getting started, and here in Wyoming, the Institute is hoping to be at the center of it.

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