Graduate student will present promising oil research

LAWRENCE — A unique approach to recovering oil from tiny cracks in rocks deep below the earth’s surface has earned a University of Kansas School of Engineering graduate student a trip to an international conference to showcase her research.

Yan Gao, a doctoral student in chemical and petroleum engineering, won a student travel award from the American Society of Rheology to travel to Portugal in August. The Society of Rheology is composed of physicists, chemists, biologists, engineers and mathematicians interested in advancing and applying rheology, the study of how fluids flow. Gao will present her research at the International Congress of Rheology, which meets every four years and includes presentations by the top researchers in the field.

“Being selected to present at this conference is a good sign that our research is cutting edge,” Gao said. “It’s great to have this work receive this type of recognition.”

Gao’s research is part of a collaboration between Chemical and Petroleum Engineering Assistant Professor Prajna Dhar’s Molecular Engineering group and KU’s Tertiary Oil Recovery Project (TORP), an organization established in 1974 to enhance industry techniques in recovering oil and gas from around the state.  This includes returning to abandoned and believed-to-be tapped out reservoirs to use new methods to attempt to extract additional natural resources.

Gao’s research centers on two key substances – surfactants and nanoparticles.  Surfactants are chemical substances present in all detergents and cleaning products, that both repel and dissolve water – a characteristic that makes it easier to dissolve oil and later collect when extracted from tiny pores deep in the bedrock. Nanoparticles are very tiny particles (smaller than the width of one human hair) that are increasingly being used in several applications in technology and medicine.

“If only a surfactant is injected into rock, as it travels through different particles, something could easily block it, or it could attach to something,” Gao said. “By using nanoparticles to entrap the surfactant, the substance can travel through very small pores without getting entangled along the way.”

The International Congress of Rheology is set for Aug. 5-10 in Lisbon, Portugal. Gao will be accompanied by her advisers, Dhar and Jenn-Tai Liang, professor of chemical and petroleum and director of KU’s Tertiary Oil Recovery Project.

“It’s very exciting for Yan, and it’s great for KU. Some of the most respected people in the field from around the world attend this conference,” Dhar said. “Yan is very motivated and dedicated to her research. This experience will give her a lot of confidence to go out there and present to so many people from so many different countries.”

Gao received her master’s degree from KU in 2011 and hopes to wrap up her research and earn her doctorate in chemical and petroleum engineering within the next two years.