Radical Innovation By Rie Jerichow

Pitcher plants have leaves known as pitfall traps. Moistened by condensation or nectar, the rim of the pitcher is slippery causing insects to fall into the trap. The researchers have mimicked nature and copied the surface properties to develop liquid-infused slippery surfaces for industrial application.

 

Photo MelBrackstone/Bigstock.com
The oil industry can learn from insecticidal plants
DHRTC’s Radical Innovation Sprint offers funding to the maturation process of radical ideas.

DHRTC’s Radical Innovation Sprint offers funding to researchers who have radical ideas with the potential to change the oil and gas industry. Last year 13 radical ideas were funded, and among those – a project that takes inspiration from the surface of insect eating pitcher plants to optimise the oil flow in pipelines.

Every cross-country skier knows that it is vital for his speed to minimise friction by waxing his skis. Friction is also a challenge in oil pipelines.

“We are always pumping against shear forces, so it takes a lot of energy to pump the oil through a long pipe. The oil is in touch with the inner surface of the pipe and like erasers, it sticks to the surface. If you could avoid this friction, it would save a lot of energy,” says Associate Professor Tobias Weidner from the Department of Chemistry at Aarhus University.

To develop new smart surfaces, the research group has been inspired by nature. Many years ago, they started looking at how nature hadinvented some amazing properties – for example how beetles, geckos and spiders can stick so well to a surface. But this project is not about sticking – rather the direct opposite.

“First, we tried to mimic the surface of lotus leaves that never get wet, because the water drips off,” Tobias Weidner explains.

“However, it proved to be too unstable. Then we studied another structure with a nanoscopic roughness. It worked better, but because the oil is very viscous, it was pushed into the structure. Finally, we concentrated on mimicking the surface of pitcher plants. They have slippery leaves causing insects to fall into the trap. We copied those surface properties and developed a slippery surface infused with a liquid, and because of the liquid both oil and water will be repelled.”

Pitcher plants have leaves known as pitfall traps. Moistened by condensation or nectar, the rim of the pitcher is slippery causing insects to fall into the trap. The researchers have mimicked nature and copied the surface properties to develop liquid-infused slippery surfaces for industrial application.

 

Photo MelBrackstone/Bigstock.com

The aim of the DHRTC Radical Innovation Sprint programme is to fund work on radical ideas for a period of three months. The requirement for qualification is that the ideas can lead to innovations which result in discontinuous change of the industry. Last year 53 radical ideas were submitted for the Radical Innovation Sprint and 13 received funding. Deadline for submitting proposals this year is 1 May.

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We have all the ingredients – we just have to figure out how to do it.” Tobias Weidner
Easy to apply

This might sound a complicated solution but not so, says Tobias Weidner. In fact, it is a relatively simple chemical reaction. It can be dissolved in water and it works on almost any surface you will find in a pipeline. It works on polymer, on plastic surfaces, on metal or steel. In addition, it is in theory very easy to apply to existing oil pipelines, for example, in connection with the regular maintenance. You could simply add the solution to a cleaning solution. The next step is to implement this technology in the maintenance process.

“We have all the ingredients – we just have to figure out how to do it,” says Tobias Weidner.

Initially, the researchers were focused on the energy saving associated with less friction, but through cooperation with DHRTC and oil industry experts it has become apparent that the biggest savings may be elsewhere.

“Most likely the biggest saving potential is in extending the maintenance interval,” says Tobias Weidner.

“The new surface not only lets the oil flow faster, it also prevents the adherence of bacteria, the formation of biofilms and corrosion, because the oil does not touch the surface. And if we could prolong the maintenance interval by – let us say – a factor of two, it would mean a considerable saving.”

The researchers who received funding in 2017 were:
Aarhus University:
Ole Rønø Clausen Department of Geoscience
Tobias Weidner Department of Chemistry
Alberto Scoma Department of Bioscience
Aalborg University:
Jens Laurids Sørensen Department of Chemistry and Bioscience
Zhenyu Yang Department of Energy Technology
Cejna Anna Quist-Jensen Department of Chemistry and Bioscience
University of Copenhagen:
Knud Dideriksen Department of Chemistry
Technical University of Denmark:
Paul Pop DTU Compute
Nicolas von Solms DTU Chemical Engineering
Eyal Levenberg DTU Civil Engineering
Philip Fosbøl Department of Chemical and Biochemical Engineering
Others:
Oscar Vazquez Heriot Watt
Helle Foged Christensen GEO