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Enhancing oil recovery using nanoparticles

Prof Paul Glover (SEE), Dr Piroska Lorinczi (SEE), Dr Zhongliang Hu (SCAPE)

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• An opportunity to combine experimental work, physical modelling and numerical modelling in a single research project.

• The project contains pure research as well as major aspects of direct applicability to industry.

• Join a diverse research group covering all aspects of rock physics with an international reputation and links to industry.

• The project is supported by successful pilot studies with the potential to generate early publications and consequent option of PhD assessment by publications alone.


As the world moves into the third decade of the 21st century, developed and developing nations still depend critically upon materials derived from oil. However, the Earth’s natural oil resources have been significantly depleted. Most existing large and simple reservoirs have reached or are reaching the end of their practical production lifetimes with over 40% of their original oil still in place, yet not producible. Smaller and more complex reservoirs can fill the production gap, but are expensive and run the risk of damaging the environment. It would be far better to find ways of extracting more oil from the reservoirs that we currently have. 

A pilot study at the University of Leeds has shown that the injection of nanoparticles suspended in aqueous fluids can result in 33% more oil being produced (Hu et al., 2016). A wide range of different nanoparticles are available for us to study. Several mechanisms for the improvement in recovery factor have been proposed. In the first the surface properties of the nanoparticles attract them to the mineral surfaces and effectively lever off oil which is attached to those surfaces. A second mechanism involves waterborne nanoparticles blocking high permeability pathways which carry water past other pathways that contain trapped oil. The result is that the water must now take the low permeability pathway containing the trapped oil, and in doing so mobilises it for production. 

Aims and Objectives

The aim of the research is to understand the effect of nanoparticles on improvements to oil production from reservoirs using experimental measurements, imaging and associated analogue and numerical modelling. Its objectives include:

• Measuring oil production enhancement using nanoparticle-rich water-flooding on a range of reservoir rocks in the laboratory.

• Development of an understanding of the proposed ‘wettability-modification’ and ‘log jamming’ mechanisms for hydrocarbon enhancement.

• Calculation of the impact of using nanoparticle water-flooding on a range of candidate reservoirs using numerical modelling.

• Calculation of the impact of nanoparticle water-flooding on all reservoirs worldwide which might potentially benefit from the application of this technology using socio-economic modelling.


The PhD will progress in four overlapping strands. 

• The first strand is experimental and will involve carrying out a number of laboratory-based measurements of oil recovery from reservoir rocks of different types using different types,  sizes and concentrations of nanoparticles. 

• The second strand involves physical modelling of nanoparticles passing through the rock microstructure in an experimental cell that will allow the process to be imaged in order to study microscale processes which lead to increased production. 

• The third strand will involve reservoir modelling using state-of-the-art software available at the University of Leeds. This modelling is necessary to evaluate the impact of increased oil production observed at the experimental scale when it is applied to the full reservoir scale. 

• A fourth and final strand to the PhD involves a limited amount of simple modelling to assess the likely global impact and benefit of implementing nanofluid waterflooding.


This PhD proposal is unusual in that it combines experimental measurements, physical modelling, imaging, numerical reservoir modelling and socio-economic modelling in one piece of work, making it a potentially very interesting piece of research. The experimental work is prefigured by a successful pilot study which has already led to one scientific paper (Hu et al., 2016). The supervisory team is extremely experienced in petroleum engineering, petrophysics and reservoir modelling, with an excellent track record in PhD supervision. 


Applicants should have a BSc/BEng degree (or equivalent) in earth sciences,  petroleum engineering, physics or a similar discipline. An MSc or MEng in one of the aforementioned disciplines would be an advantage. Skills in experimental design, fluid flow experiments, FEM and/or reservoir modelling are desirable. A reasonable competence in mathematics is expected. An ability to code would be useful, though not essential.  

Click here for a full project description.

Related undergraduate subjects:

  • Chemical engineering
  • Chemistry
  • Earth science
  • Earth system science
  • Engineering
  • Geological science
  • Geology
  • Geophysical science
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  • Geoscience
  • Hydrology
  • Mathematics
  • Mechanical engineering
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  • Natural sciences
  • Physical science
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  • Soil science