Is this the future for oil well cement research?

Jon Lawson

A key part of drilling and tapping new oil wells is the use of specialised cements to line the borehole and prevent collapse and leakage of the hole. To keep these cements from hardening too quickly before they penetrate to the deepest levels of the well, they are mixed with chemicals called retarders that slow down the setting process.

It’s been hard to study the way these retarders work, however, because the process happens at extreme pressures and temperatures that are hard to reproduce at the surface.
Now, researchers at MIT and elsewhere have developed new techniques for observing the setting process in microscopic detail, an advance that they say could lead to the development of new formulations specifically designed for the conditions of a given well location. This could go a long way toward addressing the problems of methane leakage and well collapse that can occur with today’s formulations.

Their findings appear in a paper by MIT Professor Oral Buyukozturk, MIT research scientist Kunal Kupwade-Patil, and eight others at the Aramco Research Centre in Texas and at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) in Tennessee.

“There are hundreds of different mixtures of cement currently in use,” said Buyukozturk, who is the George Macomber Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at MIT. The new methods developed by this team for observing how these different formulations behave during the setting process “open a new environment for research and innovation in developing these specialised cements,” he added.

The cement used to seal the lining of oil wells often has to set hundreds or even thousands of metres below the surface, under extreme conditions and in the presence of various corrosive chemicals. Studies of retarders have typically been done by removing samples of the cured cement from a well for testing in the lab, but such tests do not reveal the details of the sequence of chemical changes taking place during the curing process.

The new method uses a unique detector setup at Oak Ridge National Laboratory called the Nanoscale Ordered Materials Diffractometer, or NOMAD, which is used to carry out a process called Neutron Pair Distribution Function analysis, or PDF. This technique can examine in situ the distribution of pairs of atoms in the material that mimic realistic conditions that are encountered in a real oil well at depth.

“NOMAD is perfectly suited to study complex structural problems such as understanding hydration in concrete, because of its high flux and the sensitivity of neutrons to light elements such as hydrogen,” said Thomas Proffen of ORNL, a co-author of the paper.

The experiments revealed that the primary mechanism at work in widely used retarder materials is the depletion of calcium ions, a key component in the hardening process, within the setting cement. With fewer calcium ions present, the solidifying process is dramatically slowed down. This knowledge should help experimenters to identify different chemical additives that can produce this same effect.