Case study: ISIS helps unclog the cholesterol of crude oil

Blocked oil pipes

Crude oil pipeline blocked by asphaltene and waxes
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Experiments at ISIS are helping companies to understand why oil pipes get blocked and how best to extract oil from its source.

  • Asphaltenes are a complex mixture of molecules that can sometimes block oil pipes
  • By using the ISIS neutron source scientists have been able to better understand how these substances form and how best to avoid them in oil recovery and transport

Oil pipes and machinery can get blocked by substances called asphaltenes. These are complex mixtures of molecules that are sometimes called “the cholesterol of crude oil.” This is because they cling to surfaces and can cause costly blockages. They can also alter mineral surfaces within a reservoir, making it more difficult to recover the oil.

Until recently scientists knew very little about the structure of asphaltenes and why they form blockages. By using neutron beams at ISIS, a team from University College London and oilfield services company Schlumberger were able to see in real time how the asphaltenes behaved in different circumstances.

It had been thought that the presence of clay around crude oil could be enhancing the conditions for the asphaltenes to aggregate. Small angle neutron scattering at ISIS enabled scientists to observe that asphaltene aggregates formed more readily when clay was present in the sample.

"The work at ISIS allowed us to understand more clearly how the asphaltenes aggregate,” says Edo Boek, a senior research scientist at Schlumberger Cambridge Research “This is an important observation from a flow assurance point of view and should allow more efficient extraction of hydrocarbons in the future."

The research will help the oil industry to more easily predict and prepare for the formation of asphaltene deposits, which should result in fewer blockages and big savings for the oil industry.

P. A. Lock

Research date: January 2006

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