Cockrell School of Engineering
The University of Texas at Austin

Associate Professor Matt Balhoff joined the UT PGE Department over a decade ago after graduating with a doctoral degree in chemical engineering from Louisiana State University. Since then, he has become a rising star in the petroleum engineering field of enhanced oil recovery - an important discipline for improving oil and gas recovery rates, making the process more efficient. Balhoff shares his latest innovations and challenges as well as the benefits of cross-disciplinary research.

1/ From a 30,000 foot view, what are the latest advances you have discovered on the enhanced oil recovery front?

We have demonstrated in laboratory coreflood experiments that we can reduce the residual, final oil saturation to less than seven percent in water wet rocks using only polymers (compared to over 30 percent) from a waterflood. These types of recoveries have only been previously observed when surfactants were used. The polymer flooding is found to be most successful when they are viscoelastic, having properties of both a viscous liquid and an elastic solid. We are now performing experiments using glass microfluidic chips and micromodels, which are 2D porous media that can be used to visualize flow behavior.

2/ You collaborate with several faculty members, who work within diversified areas of oil and gas in UT PGE. How do those partnerships help you to be successful?

Yes, I have collaborated with almost every faculty member in UT PGE in some capacity. Working with so many experts in our field has enabled me to come up with innovative ideas, and apply them to new applications. This work is a direct result of my collaborations with Dr. Gary Pope, who is an expert in chemical enhanced oil recovery. I have also worked with Dr. Carlos Torres-Verdin on microfluidics and nanofluidics and I am now applying these tools to other problems, like polymer flooding.

matt website photo

Associate Professor Matt Balhoff

3/ What papers have you recently published on this topic?

We have two recent papers in the SPE Journal on the subjects of polymer flooding and reduction of residual oil. In the polymer flooding paper, we first demonstrated that viscoelastic polymers significantly improved oil recovery. Moreover, we used a medical CT scanner to show that the additional oil is truly residual, and the recovery is correlated with the amount of elasticity of the polymer. In the second paper, we showed that residual oil saturation could be increased even further by simply increasing the salinity of the polymer solution.

4/ What big challenges are you looking to tackle over the next year?

The observations of low residual oil saturation from polymer flooding are surprising, exciting, and potentially transformative. Part of the challenge will be optimization by performing more experiments. The main challenge will be explaining the fundamental mechanisms of why it works, so real optimization can be performed. The solution to the problem will require more experiments in our micromodels and modeling at the pore scale.