UAF researchers develop method for increasing oil extraction on North Slope

Published: Oct. 7, 2022 at 5:38 PM AKDT
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FAIRBANKS, Alaska (KTVF) - New processes for extracting oil on the North Slope are expected to yield billions of new barrels in the coming years.

Starting in 2018, the University of Alaska Fairbanks, using funding from the Department of Energy, researched a polymer that can get oil out of the ground that used to be too difficult to extract.

Jill Fisk, Vice President for Prudhoe Bay Operations with Hilcorp said, “We’re always asking ourselves ‘Is there a better way to do things or a different way to do things?’”

Abhijit Dandekar, Professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and part of the research team said the polymer “looks like a powder of sugar-like consistency, and you add water to it, and it becomes like a gel, and that gel is something that helps push viscous oil such as this.”

This polymer is already being used by several countries around the world, including Canada and China.

However, Alaska carries its own challenges. “Mainly, we have to deal with permafrost,” Governor Mike Dunleavy explained “We have to deal with a climate that’s a lot different than the Middle East, and even the lower 48, but that’s where University of Alaska comes in, to be able to take this research and to be able to apply this research into a practical application.”

Viscous oil is thicker than the light oil currently coming from Prudhoe Bay, and heavy oil is thicker still.

On the North Slope, 12 billion barrels of viscous oil and 12 to 18 billion barrels of heavy oil are expected to be made available using this polymer. “That’s equivalent to two Prudhoe Bays,” Dunleavy said. “I repeat: that’s equivalent ot two Prudhoe Bays if the tech proves out and can be deployed at scale.”

In order for the polymer to be used, enough must be manufactured to make it practical. The goal is eventually to extract 125 thousand barrels of viscous oil a day. Fisk said, “We’ve successfully proven that polymer injection works on the North Slope.”

Meanwhile, the State of Alaska is funding continued research at the university on how to extract heavy oil as well.