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Unlocking Natural Catalysis in Subsurface Oil Recovery

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  • Full or part time
    Dr J Wood
  • Application Deadline
    No more applications being accepted
  • Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)
    Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)

Project Description

A PhD project with Prof Wood would focus on subsurface oil recovery. This could present a future opportunity to recover additional oil from partially spent reservoirs in the North Sea (e.g. The Steam Oil Company) in addition to heavy deposits in other parts of the World (e.g. Venezuela) We propose to study subsurface recovery using in-situ combustion combined with catalytic upgrading, by utilising the clay minerals occurring naturally in these geological formations, ‘unlocking’ their potential as catalysts. These include deposits such as oxides of iron and vanadium. Producing these resources effectively and with minimal environmental impact requires innovative science and technology. We seek to utilise chemical and biochemical methods of releasing and transforming these species to make active catalyst particles which will be applied down-hole in the reservoir to aid the recovery of oil and greatly reduce the environmental impact associated with alternative techniques such as mining and steam injection. For example, Fe-based catalysts could have high potential ‘in the well’ as they can function in steam reforming in the combustion step, in sulphide removal and hydrocarbon hydrogenation. We propose to apply and adapt previously developed upstream engineering techniques including Toe-to-Heel Air Injection (THAI) and catalytic upgrading process in-situ (CAPRI). These are based upon in-situ combustion in a horizontal well incorporating thermal upgrading. We also seek to utilise these natural catalysts to decrease the coke deposition and deactivation associated with refinery type catalysts, which can otherwise greatly limit the process lifetime and to decrease the environmental impact of the process by using naturally occurring metals. Specific aims are to:

- Produce oil with increased API gravity and lowered viscosity from partially upgraded heavy oil.
- Reduce the need for additional surface upgrading at the refinery and thus energy use.
- Utilise particles as catalysts such as iron oxide, representative of metals naturally occurring in the geological formation as models for fines from past natural formation damage/erosion of an iron rich mineralogy which can augment upstream upgrading and reduce the requirement for refining. The THAI-CAPRI process is a novel oil recovery method. Operating the well with dispersed nanoparticulate catalysts brings new challenges of how to convey the catalyst in to the mobile oil zone, as well as understanding the fate of such nano-materials in the environment. The student will participate in a comprehensive training programme and will be comfortable working at the interface between Geoscience and Engineering.

For details of the funding available and advice on making your application, please contact:
[Email Address Removed]

Funding Notes

Funding is available from NERC. Full funding of stipend and fees is only available to UK citizens or those who have been resident in the UK for a period of 3 years or more. Citizens of the European Union may be eligible for a fees only award.

Non-UK Students: If you have the correct qualifications and access to your own funding, either from your home country or your own finances, your application to work on this project will be considered.

For sources of funding please visit:


1. References: A. Shah, R. Fishwick, J. Wood, G. Leeke, S. Rigby and M. Greaves, 2010, A review of novel techniques for heavy oil and bitumen extraction and upgrading. Energy Environ. Sci. 3, 700 – 714.

How good is research at University of Birmingham in Aeronautical, Mechanical, Chemical and Manufacturing Engineering?
Chemical Engineering

FTE Category A staff submitted: 32.50

Research output data provided by the Research Excellence Framework (REF)

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