Siberian university weighs in with chemical innovation as oil sector scrambles for competitiveness
14 Nov '15
Let’s take a closer look today at a noteworthy project announced at the Tomsk State University (TSU) in Siberia. It is aimed at developing new highly efficient methods of modified polysaccharide reagent synthesis for the oil and gas sector. Thus far, Russia has been importing reagents to cover its needs for quality chemical products in oil well drilling. Imports are getting increasingly prohibitive these days, given the sheer economics of drilling a single well with reagents that account for a third of the overall cost. With sector revenues shriveling and oil reserves getting harder and harder to recover, the comfort of buying everything abroad, so natural with the exorbitant oil prices of the 2000’s, is now too luxurious to afford. Therefore the Siberian scientists want to come up with their own polysaccharide reagents with given properties in a bid to help the hydrocarbon industry lower the overall cost of drilling. This is hardly an incentive for federal budgets to “stay addicted to the oil pipe,” as some experts referred to when commenting on innovation in the sector, but rather a way of satisfying the urgent need one of Russia’s key industries has for modernization and global competitiveness.
According to TSU, it’s an Innovation Technology Center team at the university’s Siberian Institute of Physics and Technology that will be the prime driver in this new polysaccharide reagent effort for oil and gas producers.
Konstantin Minaev, a TSU scientist overseeing the research aspects of the project, emphasized that oil and gas well construction is a complex process requiring hydraulic flushing with chemical drilling solutions:
“Most of today’s chemical solutions for well drilling contain as many as two dozen reagents for a range of technological purposes; however, the entire process and its end results hinge primarily on the quality of polysaccharide reagents, such as cellulose and starch ethers, xanthan gum, etc.”
As years of exploration go by, geological and engineering advancements in hydrocarbon production will be increasingly hampered by complicated geo-structures and forbidding depths of new strata. To develop such challenging fields a producer will have to rely on high-quality materials and reagents to efficiently support drilling.
So far, Russia has imported reagents to cover its needs for quality chemical products in drilling. A typical set of reagents required for boring deep and quality wells accounts for as much as 30% of the total cost of a new well, and with today’s soaring prices for imports some Russian oil producers may simply have to go out of business one day.
“We have plans to come up with our own competitive polysaccharide reagents with given properties. This will help the hydrocarbon industry lower the overall cost of drilling,” Mr. Minaev said.
The scientist added that his team will pool efforts in this project with TSU’s experts in synthetic chemistry who have vast experience in developing new chemical reagents.
Research in focus
Efforts to support the oil and gas sector have evolved into a priority area for research at TSU over the past few years. Local scientists are working on an array of related projects, including catalysts for flameless burning of oil waste, new techniques for extracting the DNA of microorganisms from strata waters in oil fields, and others.
This Siberian research effort has been federally supported after the Tomsk State University successfully performed in a recent government competition that picked TSU and a number of other Russian universities as recipients of state subsidies funding university-originating high-tech production efforts.
All in all, in 2016 the Russian Ministry of Education and Science is expected to allocate a total of $103+m for Russian companies and universities that have won the above-mentioned government competition. In this new program, a reported 49 companies are teaming up with 37 Russian universities in their joint high-tech endeavors.
A bane or a window of opportunities?
Skeptics may note that highlighting developments in a commodity sector is not exactly what an innovation-focused media outlet should spend time and effort on. Relying on petrodollars for sustaining a flurry of government programs across Russia has been a headache, and a bane, for economists of all stripes.
The dependence is chronic, and indeed menacing. But does that mean that as an alternative to this truly serious addiction a country awash in oil should leave its oil sector to scramble with century-old technologies? The answer appears obvious. It’s the responsibility of Russia’s academia and research centers to make oil production a sector of the 21st century. We can see a large number of examples of how in the world’s most innovative countries oil companies like ExxonMobile or Total are pushing their modernization projects.
And so are—at least some—of their colleagues in Russia. It’s not accidental that Thomson Reuters, one of the world’s most authoritative analysts, called Tatneft, a midcap oil producer from Tatarstan in the very heart of Russia, number one innovator in Europe, putting it ahead of Shell in its 2014 ranking of Europe’s most innovative oil producers.
The article was first published on the website of the Lobachevsky State University of Nizhny Novgorod’s Technology Commercialization Center.