Donhee Ham, a Gordon McKay Professor of Electrical Engineering and Applied Physics at Harvard University has just been awarded $1.7 million from the U.S Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy to develop miniature nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) electronics, which could assist in analysing the Earth’s deep subsurface and enable imaging of rock formations for oil and gas exploration.
Essentially, NMR is a technique that alters protons within a molecule to gain important clues about its structure and motion.
It can be used to identify unknown substances, detect slight variations in chemical composition with atomic resolution and measure how molecules move and interact, making it an essential tool in several fields including petroleum exploration.
NMR has been used since the 1990s to examine fluid compositions and molecular interactions between rock surfaces and has helped discover large oil and shale reservoirs in regions such as Brazil and the United States.
However, the NMR electronics used in the industry today are bulky, heavy and expensive – often standing over three metres and weighing close to 90 kilograms.
The Professor and his team are looking to change that by integrating current NMR electronics into a miniature semiconductor chip that can be held at the palm of a hand.
Professor Ham explained that such small NMR electronics can be far more broadly disseminated throughout geological formations, enabling long-term distributed monitoring of Earth’s subsurface, transforming oil discovery and production across mature fields, deepwater fields, and unconventional oil/gas reservoirs.
“Such distributed monitoring is like imaging Earth’s subsurface, just as the same NMR physics images inside the human body in MRI,” he said.
One new hurdle ahead for the Professor and his team is ensuring that the chip-scale electronics can withstand the temperatures of the subterranean environment as current generation silicone integrated circuits are not cut out for such high-temperature applications.
To overcome this challenge, Ham and his team will be working with gallium-nitride integrated circuit technology, which aids in both miniaturisation and allows the system to operate in hot temperatures.
If successful, this miniature NMR device could not only be used to assist with subsurface oil and gas discovery, but also be applied to quality monitoring and improved efficiency in downstream elements of the energy chain e.g. shipping, pipelining, mixing, refinery, storage, and distribution.
The research forms a part of a continued collaboration with oilfield services company Schlumberger and gained funding through the ARPA-E OPEN program.