A Novel Method for Characterizing Sub-Surface Formations of Oil and Gas Deposits

Physical Sciences : Petroleum

Available for non-exclusive licensing


  • Chun Huh, Ph.D. , Petroleum and Geosystems Engineering
  • Steven Bryant, Ph.D. , Petroleum and Geosystems Engineering
  • Thomas Milner, Ph.D. , Biomedical Engineering
  • Keith Johnston, Ph.D. , Chemical Engineering
  • Christopher Bielawski, Ph.D. , Chemistry and Biochemistry
  • Ki Youl Yoon , Chemical Engineering

Background/unmet need

Current methods to detect the presence and location of oil in porous rock have limitations on the depths to which they can detect the presence of oil. Current seismic approaches face problems with differentiating between water and oil, and detecting promising rock layers that are too thin. Some methods are able to search for traps and porosity, but they are not able to assess whether there is actually oil in such formations.

Invention Description

Researchers at The University of Texas at Austin have developed a method of using paramagnetic nanoparticles to image oil distribution. The invention encompasses three aspects that have not been achieved by existing methods:
- Enhanced imaging by injecting paramagnetic nanoparticles
- Nanoparticle coating such that they preferentially collect at the oil/water interface, without adsorbing onto rock pore walls
- Introduction of a magnetic field so that the nanoparticles cause the oil/water interface to oscillate, thus allowing only those areas to be imaged.


  • This technology would allow for oil detection at greater depths than possible with current approaches.
  • The detection of oil in the reservoir rock will be very accurate, since the nanoparticles preferentially collect at the water/oil interface.


  • Specific nanoparticles with paramagnetic properties that are designed to reside at an oil/water interface without adsorbing to the rock pore walls
  • Method of injecting nanoparticles in water into a subsurface formation
  • Method of applying a magnetic field to the reservoir post-injection and subsequently generating an image

Market potential/applications

The world oil production is 85,472,000 barrels/day and the world oil consumption is 85,534,000 barrels/day (DOE 2009). The Advanced Energy Consortium notes that between 60 and 70 percent of the oil discovered is left behind (AEC 2008). There is a growing market for improved imaging techniques, since it reduces cost and leads to faster production from existing fields.

The US Department of Energy notes that there are many limitations for the current imaging methods. Research is being done using seismic surveying approaches, since current methods are able to detect regions that might trap oil but not regions with different porosity (http://fossil.energy.gov/programs/oilgas/fundamental/index.html).

This novel technology would be able to detect the presence of oil by injecting nanoparticles to locate oil-water interfaces, instead of having to locate possible traps and porous regions.

Development Stage

Proof of concept

IP Status