Updated 12 months ago
It all may end up as gasoline, but in terms of chemistry, crude oil from the Saudi Arabian peninsula scarcely resembles the oil brought up from the wells drilled into the Gulf of Mexico’s floor. Oil is a complex cocktail of between 20,000 and 30,000 chemical compounds, with the recipe depending on the region and geologic formation where the petroleum pooled.
This chemistry is of more than passing interest to oil companies. To help them figure out where to look for it — and then how to refine it most efficiently — the companies turn to technology developed by Alan G. Marshall, a professor of chemistry and an expert in chemical analysis at the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory at Florida State University.
Marshall and his research team use the massive magnets at the lab to separate an oil sample into thousands of atomic particles — in the same way that a prism spreads out white light into a spectrum of colors. The team then examines the atoms to determine what chemical compounds the sample contains. “The bigger the magnet, the more the signal spreads out,” says Marshall.
In the course of turning crude into gasoline or heating oil, oil refiners use Marshall’s data to learn whether a batch of crude includes compounds that can clog pipelines, or if the chemical makeup of a particular oil discovery means it will be more expensive to refine.
Marshall’s analysis is even more relevant to the exploration efforts of companies such as ExxonMobil, Shell and ConocoPhillips. A company, for example, that brings up oil from several test wells spread across an area needs to determine whether it has discovered small, random deposits or an entire new oilfield. Without drilling dozens or hundreds of additional test wells, the oil company can use Marshall’s technology to compare samples from the different wells. If the chemical compositions of the samples match, all the oil must come from the same geological formation — and therefore the entire area between the wells will likely contain oil, too.
“The real money is ... determining whether to drill or not,” explains Marshall.
Marshall calls the technology “petroleomics,” but the official name of the process is called “Fourier transform ion cyclotron resonance mass spectrometry.” He co-invented it while at the University of British Columbia, and it can be used on other complex substances, including pharmaceuticals, proteins and explosives. More than 700 systems based on his patents have been sold to academia and the pharmaceutical industry in addition to the oil industry.
This summer, Marshall and his mag lab research team signed a deal with Sierra Analytics, a Modesto, Calif., software company, to sell software based on the data from the oil research. The deal will boost the visibility and reputation of Marshall’s team, but it’s also lucrative. In addition to royalties, the lab gets to keep 10 copies of the software, which collectively are worth in the six figures.