Inside Rensselaer
* New Graphene Discovery Boosts Oil Exploration Efforts

Researchers at Rensselaer have developed a new method to harvest energy from flowing water. Led by Professor Nikhil Koratkar, the study sought to explain how the flow of water over surfaces coated with the nanomaterial graphene could generate small amounts of electricity. Using a small sheet of the graphene coating, seen above as a dark blue patch connected to gold contacts, the research team demonstrated the creation of 85 nanowatts of power.

New Graphene Discovery Boosts Oil Exploration Efforts

Researchers at Rensselaer have developed a new method to harvest energy from flowing water. This discovery aims to hasten the creation of self-powered microsensors for more accurate and cost-efficient oil exploration.

Led by Rensselaer Professor Nikhil Koratkar, the researchers investigated how the flow of water over surfaces coated with the nanomaterial graphene could generate small amounts of electricity. The research team demonstrated the creation of 85 nanowatts of power from a sheet of graphene measuring .03 millimeters by .015 millimeters.

This amount of energy should be sufficient to power tiny sensors that are introduced into water or other fluids and pumped down into a potential oil well, Koratkar said. As the injected water moves through naturally occurring cracks and crevices deep in the earth, the devices detect the presence of hydro-carbons and can help uncover hidden pockets of oil and natural gas. As long as water is flowing over the graphene-coated devices, they should be able to provide a reliable source of power. This power is necessary for the sensors to relay collected data and information back to the surface.

“It’s impossible to power these microsensors with conventional batteries, as the sensors are just too small. So we created a graphene coating that allows us to capture energy from the movement of water over the sensors,” said Koratkar, professor in the Department of Mechanical, Aerospace, and Nuclear Engineering and the Department of Materials Science and Engineering. “While a similar effect has been observed for carbon nanotubes, this is the first such study with graphene. The energy-harvesting capability of graphene was at least an order of magnitude superior to nanotubes. Moreover, the advantage of the flexible graphene sheets is that they can be wrapped around almost any geometry or shape.”

Details of the study, titled “Harvesting Energy from Water Flow over Graphene,” were published online by the journal Nano Letters. The study also will appear in a future print edition of the journal. It is the first research paper to result from the $1 million grant awarded to Koratkar’s group in March 2010 by the Advanced Energy Consortium.

Hydrocarbon exploration is an expensive process that involves drilling deep down in the earth to detect the presence of oil or natural gas. Koratkar said oil and gas companies would like to augment this process by sending out large numbers of microscale or nanoscale sensors into new and existing drill wells. These sensors would travel laterally through the earth, carried by pressurized water pumped into these wells, and into the network of cracks that exist underneath the earth’s surface. Oil companies would no longer be limited to vertical exploration, and the data collected from the sensors would arm these firms with more information for deciding the best locations to drill.

The team’s discovery is a potential solution for a key challenge to realizing these autonomous microsensors, which will need to be self-powered. By covering the microsensors with a graphene coating, the sensors can harvest energy as water flows over the coating.

Graphene is a single-atom-thick sheet of carbon atoms, which are arranged like a chain-link fence. For this study, Koratkar’s team used graphene that was grown by chemical vapor deposition on a copper substrate and transferred onto silicon dioxide. The researchers created an experimental water tunnel
apparatus to test the generation of power as water flows over the graphene at different velocities.

Looking at potential future applications of this new technology, Koratkar said he could envision self-powered microrobots or microsubmarines. Another possibility is harvesting power from a graphene coating on the underside of a boat.

* * *
*
*
Send comments to:
Inside Rensselaer, Strategic Communications and External Relations
1000 Troy Building, 110 Eighth Street, Troy, N.Y. 12180 or to leibat@rpi.edu.
*
Inside Rensselaer
Volume 5, Number 12, August 26, 2011
©2011 Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
Front Page
*
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute | About RPI | Virtual Campus Tour | Academics | Research | Student Life | Admissions | News & Events