Engineers get a grip on slippery surfactants

A Rice University group's innovative surfactant theory removes limitations of a 100-year-old model for interfacial behavior in enhanced oil recovery.

The lab of Rice chemical engineer Walter Chapman customized a well-worn model to analyze surfactant-containing fluids that are pumped into wells to coax as much oil possible out of rocks deep underground.

To accomplish the modeling task required a shift in thinking for the lab that uses sophisticated mathematical models to analyze how fluids interact with each other and the structures that contain them.

The researchers employed a standard thermodynamic modeling method known as density gradient theory (DGT), which has been used to predict the interfacial properties of pure and mixed systems.

They modified the DGT model to better characterize surfactant molecules that in reality are far more complex than previous models allowed for.

That could help producers squeeze even more oil out of wells that would otherwise be considered played out.

The work led by Chapman and Rice graduate student Xiaoqun Mu appears in the American Chemical Society journal Industrial & Engineering Chemistry Research.

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