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UML researchers seek to strike oil

By From the Lowell Sun

By TOM SPOTH, Sun Staff
Lowell Sun

LOWELL -- Finding oil is hard enough, but getting it out of the ground is also a tricky task.

"A common misconception is that oil is found down there in a puddle," said UMass Lowell professor emeritus Dan Golomb. "Usually it is dispersed in sandstone ... it's sand saturated with oil. The oil doesn't want to come out easily."

Golomb and another UML professor, David Ryan, believe they have found a method to get the Earth to cough up more of this precious fossil fuel. This week, Golomb and Ryan received a $25,000 grant from the Massachusetts Technology Transfer Center to explore the commercial applications of their breakthrough.

Golomb explained that only 10 to 20 percent of oil can be obtained through simple drilling. Another 10 to 20 percent can be extracted using water or steam, and liquid carbon dioxide can coax out still another 10 to 20 percent.

Golomb and Ryan believe that by combining water and carbon dioxide -- two substances that don't normally mix -- they can pull as much as 60 percent of the oil out of sandstone. It's done through a process called emulsification.

"We found a way of mixing the two in a better way," Golomb said. "Think about salad dressing. Oil and vinegar ... don't mix, but you add to it mayonnaise or another emulsifier, you get Italian dressing or French dressing."

Golomb said he and Ryan stumbled upon the method about two years ago, while doing research for the U.S. Department of Energy on geologic sequestration of carbon dioxide. The emulsification process has been lab-tested with positive results, Golomb said. The next step will be testing the process on actual "core samples" of compressed sandstone from oil fields.

The technology could be commercialized within a year, Golomb said. He and Ryan are currently applying for a patent.

"We really believe if an oil company's smart, they should do it this way," Golomb said.

The MTTC received more than 50 proposals for the $25,000 grants, which were given to the UMass Lowell team and four other projects from Bay State universities. Four $5,000 awards were also handed out.

The technology transfer center, created in 2004 as part of a state economic stimulus law, has received increased funding and expects to increase the size and number of its grants, Abigail Barrow, director of the MTTC, said in a statement.