Sustainable and Green Approach to Oil & Gas Industry: Industrial Biotechnology Perspectives

By Ameerah Bokhari Ph.D., Petroleum Scientist, Saudi Aramco

Introduction

To enable a sustainable and circular carbon economy in alignment with corporate and kingdom commitments, a new Bio-based Materials research program was established. This program is directed towards developing novel advanced materials that are sustainable, economical, and environmentally friendly leveraging biotechnology approaches assisted with AI capabilities to resolve a number of critical upstream oil and gas challenges, including H2S mitigation, H2 production, CO2 capture and conversion, and green oilfield chemicals production.

Figure 1: Applications of Bio-based materials program in the upstream oil & gas industry. The program has been newly established as part of the Advanced Materials Domain in Saudi Aramco’s new research center at KAUST.

Biotechnology Advancements and Capabilities

Advances in biotechnology have been rapidly evolving over the past ten years. The pharmaceutical industry has proven the beneficial impact of biotechnology in developing many novel medicines and vaccines to treat and prevent diseases. A great example is the recent COVID-19 vaccine that was developed in a short period and helped the globe to diminish the pandemic. Undoubtedly, biotechnology was central to these advances, enabled by artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) tools, progressively offering more development in medicine and opening new opportunities for other industrial sectors such as the oil and gas industry.

Biotechnology includes three main domains that complement each other: biology, technology, and computational analysis. Biology consists of all biological materials we deal with, such as living cells, genetic materials, or their products. The technology domain consists of Next Generation Sequencing technologies (NGS), bioengineering, and biomimetics. NGS is designed to map complicated biological systems and processes translated into “omics data.” The latter include metagenomics, genomics, proteomics, and metabolomics, translated into big data analytics. Moreover, bioengineering and biomimetics are helpful tools that create innovative materials for different industrial applications. The third domain is computational analysis (or bioinformatics), which consists of AI and ML tools and capabilities enabling omics big data analysis to decipher the complicated biological systems such as microbial and protein interactions.

Figure 2: Biotechnology domains and capabilities in advanced research applications.

Industrial Biotechnology

Industrial biotechnology offers new approaches to pollution prevention, resource conservation, and cost reduction while maintaining productivity excellence. Biotechnology has shown great potential in many industrial sectors by developing industrially significant and sustainable bio-based products, including fertilizers, detergents, chemicals, and other materials. Therefore, aligning with our sustainability vision, we identified several potential biotechnological applications that can significantly benefit upstream oil and gas operations, including exploration, drilling operations, H2S reduction and conversion, and enhanced oil recovery.

Figure 3: Industrial applications of biotechnology in different industrial sectors

Biotechnology and Energy Advancements

The pressing environmental threats of climate change have been leading to major shifts in the strategy and development of various industrial practices moving towards more sustainable and environmentally friendly solutions. Since fossil fuels continue to play a significant role as the primary energy source worldwide for the following decades, integrating innovative and environmentally friendly solutions is one of the promising routes to support sustainability and net-zero mission in the oil and gas industry.

Oilfield chemicals are key components widely used in the Oil and gas (O&G) exploration and production activities. However, some of these chemicals suffer environmental and economic challenges, including their hazardous impact on the surrounding environments and high treatment and disposal costs. Another critical challenge is that some synthetic chemicals suffer from instability under extreme reservoir conditions. Thus, better alternatives are increasingly needed.

Figure 4: Advances in biotechnology enabling promising applications in the oil and gas industry.

Extremophiles

One of the promising and novel solutions is bio-based materials and chemicals, which could offer better alternatives to some synthetic oilfield chemicals in terms of economic, environmental consciousness, and sustainability. Additionally, these bio-products could show high efficiency and stability under extreme reservoir conditions, especially when isolated from a special group of microorganisms called extremophiles. These microorganisms naturally inhabit extreme environments, such as oil reservoirs, marine brine pools, and salt lakes. They show great potential to produce vigorous bioproducts and enzymes (extremozymes) due to their versatile metabolic capabilities to thrive in such extreme conditions. Considering the robust chemical properties of these products, they are of great interest to many industrial sectors. They could have great potential for various oil and gas (O&G) applications, including drilling optimization, improving oil recovery, enhancing sweep efficiency, downhole leakage mitigation, and corrosion control and monitoring.

Figure 5: Extremophiles and extremozymes are of high interest for many industrial applications due to their robust metabolic capabilities and high efficiency under extreme conditions

4IR in Biotechnology

Artificial Intelligence (AI), Machine Learning (ML), and the Internet of Things (IoT) have been critical enablers for significant advancements in biotechnology. These advanced tools and capabilities help optimize product quality and experimental conditions through big data analytics, product design, analysis, and prediction.

The use of 4IR capabilities has become a critical capability for biotechnology more than ever. It bridges the gap between data and discoveries in multiple frontiers within the industry by providing new materials, compounds, green bio-based alternatives, enzymes that can catalyze function in extreme conditions, and many other challenges. Bioinformatics is another essential tool that helps in data acquisition, analysis, and interpretation of complex biological data and better assesses its significance for specific applications.

Industrial biotechnology relies heavily on 4IR computational tools and capabilities to manage and provide better predictability of big data, accelerating the design and production of the targeted bio-products and improvements of operational productivity in alignment with the industry’s sustainability goals.

Business Impact

Various industrially significant products have been developed and served the industry. Surfactants are one of the common products that researchers developed from reservoir extremophiles and showed successful field trials and promising increase in oil recovery. Bio-polymers are another excellent example of bio-based products that could be useful in several oil and gas applications, such as enhanced oil recovery, corrosion inhibitor, and water mobility control. Biosolvents and bio acids reduce oil viscosity and increase rock porosity and permeability, which helps in enhancing the fluid flow between rock pores, thus enhancing oil recovery. Lipids and biogases could be utilized in energy mixes and advancements, which helps address global energy demand for oil and gas in a much greener approach. These are just a few examples of successful industrial endeavors of bio-products that have been investigated in many research studies and industrial practices.

Furthermore, internationally renowned companies are leading the efforts in this area with many proven positive impacts. These companies leverage biotechnology approaches to produce diverse bio-products for different oil and gas applications. Table 1 shows some bio-products and their applications in oil and gas production activities. Through the bio-based materials program, the industry aims to develop a library collection of local reservoir microorganisms and a library collection of in-house bio-products beneficial for various industrial applications, mainly for the oil and gas industry. 

Table 1: Examples of industrially significant bio-products and their promising applications in the oil & gas operations.

Bio-products

Category

Oilfield Applications

Rhamnolipids

Glycerides

Lipopeptides

Bio-surfactant

  • Enhanced Oil Recovery
  • Improved Oil Recovery
  • Oil emulsification

Acetic acid

Propionic

Butyrate

Bio-acids

  • Permeability increase
  • Emulsification
  • Well stimulation
  • Well completion & drilling fluids

Ethanol

Acetone

Butanol

Bio-solvents

  • Oil dissolution
  • Viscosity reduction

CO2, CH4, H2

Bio-gases 

Re-pressuring reservoir, green energy

Xanthan gum

Starch

Bio-polymers

  • Oil mobility
  • Reservoir fluid mobility control
  • Enhance sweep efficiency
  • Water-based drilling mud formulations

Biomass

Biomass

  • Selective plugging of high permeable zones
  • Rock wettability alteration
  • Flow conformance promotion
  • H2S reduction

CCE through Algae Biotechnology 

Conversion of industrial wastes such as CO2 and wastewater into high-value commodities is a promising approach leveraged by microalgae biotechnology. Microalgae CO2 capture and conversion is an ancient and well-known system where microalgae capture CO2 and water and convert them into high-value commodities through a biological process called photosynthesis. Even though photosynthesis is performed by other phototrophic organisms like terrestrial plants, microalgae’s photosynthesis is considered the best for the industry due to microalgae’s rapid growth rate and highly efficient photosynthetic performances, and ease of cultivation at scale. It converts CO2 into a range of industrially significant and environmentally friendly products that could benefit several industrial sectors. This approach will immensely contribute to carbon footprint reduction and optimizing hydrocarbons production while enabling sustainability and carbon circularity in the oil and gas industry.

Figure 6: algae biotechnology roadmap of developing sustainable high-value commodities for various upstream and downstream applications while enabling circular carbon economy in the oil & gas industry. This project is in collaborations with internal and external organizations including EPD and KAUST. 

Methodology

Two utilization approaches are depicted in Figure (6), utilizing two biological systems for the upstream oil and gas operations. The first biological system is for reservoir microorganisms (A) which consists of both in-situ and ex-situ approaches. The in-situ approach refers to the study and application that takes place within the reservoir and field trials. In this approach, reservoir microorganisms are stimulated to produce certain chemicals such as bio-surfactants or bio-polymers, which help monitor reservoir microbial communities for a specific function such as enhancing production or mitigating H2S and souring problems without introducing new microbial species to the reservoir. In this case, the formation of bio-products results from the natural microbiological activity that takes place directly in the reservoir. 

The second approach is the ex-situ approach, which is the study and application outside the reservoir or on the surface. In this approach, the production of the desired bio-products happens outside the reservoir, either through isolated reservoir microorganisms or through exogenous bacteria from other resources such as soil and marine. In this case, microorganisms are grown using industrial fermenters; then, the purified bio-products are utilized for different upstream applications. AI and big data analytics are key enablers for both approaches.

For the second biological system (B), the desired bio-products produced through microalgae cultivation. This approach leverages photosynthesis to enable CO2 capture and conversion into the desired oilfield chemicals and biocrude, which could be utilized in the energy mix and advancements. This system involves both in-situ and ex-situ approaches. Using isolated species in algal cultivation for chemical production is considered the ex-situ approach, while utilizing a microalgae consortium to produce biofuels in algae ponds is considered the in-situ approach.

Figure 6: Technology approach roadmap applied for two major biological systems, Reservoir microorganism and microalgae cultivation system. Both systems utilize in-situ and ex-situ approaches for various upstream applications. 

Conclusion

  • The advancements in biotechnology offer promising materials and approaches to support sustainability in the oil and gas industry.
  • Biotechnology relies heavily on AI and ML tools and capabilities to optimize the processing of biological materials toward improved industrial practices.
  • International companies are leading the efforts in this area with many proven positive impacts in several industrial applications, including the oil and gas industry.
  • The bio-based materials generated by this technology are sustainable, environmentally friendly, economical, and function effectively under harsh reservoir conditions.
  • This project has immense potential for creating novel research discoveries, new industrial practices, and great job opportunities. It involves different disciplines crucial for developing this technology in the fields of science, technology, and engineering.

 

Publication name and date:

Sustainable and Environmentally Friendly Approach to Oilfield Chemicals 

IPTC 2022, February 21, 2022

 

References:

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  6. Richard Sayre, Microalgae: The Potential for Carbon Capture, BioScience, Volume 60, Issue 9, October 2010, Pages 722–727.

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