The shared science behind ice cream, paint and crude oil

Last edited: 17 August 2016

What do ice cream, chocolate, paint, shampoo and crude oil have in common? Answer: the science behind them. Or, to be more precise, the science behind their fluid dynamics

The BP Institute (BPI) for Multiphase Flow, based at the University of Cambridge, is celebrating its 15th anniversary. Over the years, the Institute’s work has helped to solve all sorts of challenging problems through a combination of basic science, a lot of maths, and long-term relationships.
BP helped to establish the BPI with an endowment in 2000, made in perpetuity and enabling the Institute to take a long-term view of both its work and its staff and associates. The BPI, which opened in 2000, undertakes open research in the field of multiphase flow and surface chemistry, valuable experimental science that is helping to unlock some of the mysteries of fluid dynamics and answer some of industry’s most challenging questions.
Attracting world-class scientists from disciplines including mathematics, chemistry, chemical engineering, biotechnology and earth sciences, the BPI provides a melting pot for these skillsets to come together, apply and share expertise and explore possibilities. It enables BP, and plenty of other companies, to access scientific reasoning in the lab to understand challenges in the field.

What is multiphase flow?

The simultaneous flow of materials in different states - gases, liquids or solids - or of materials in the same state but with different chemical properties, e.g. a liquid such as oil dropped into water. The manner in which the different materials interact, flow, mix and evolve is calculated and described with equations.

Examples of multiphase flow in nature range from rain, snow and fog, to avalanches, mud slides and sediment transport. In the oil and gas industry, multiphase flow can describe the simultaneous flow of oil, water and gas.

A different view on a problem

The common characteristics of different fluids and their behaviour means the value of this science is broad and findings in one area can have a huge impact in another. The scientists and facilities at the BPI often enable, indeed encourage, industry to look at a problem in a different way. 

“There are three key elements that make the BPI’s work so effective,” says Anna-Marie Greenaway, BP’s director, University Relations. “These are its interdisciplinary approach, the world-class quality of the academic team, and the fact we can come here and reframe our research questions. 

“We might think we know what it is we are after, but having an opportunity to come and talk with the scientists here allows us to explore the fundamentals and can often lead to new angles of understanding and application.”

Energy and beyond

In the oil and gas industry, the BPI’s research has helped enhance recovery from challenging and mature reservoirs and avoid hydrate build–up in pipelines. Beyond energy, its findings have helped other sectors understand more about how detergents in shampoo disperse and interact, how paints dry and how ice cream melts. 

“The science we do here allows us to test and prove hypotheses which can then lead to predictive capability and advancement of knowledge,” says Professor Andy Woods, director, BPI. “Businesses, BP included, use a whole series of circumstantial evidence to help inform decisions on major upfront investments. Our findings provide some of the evidence that companies use to make those decisions.”

A range of organisations access the BPI’s expertise; for BP, the relationship is a hugely valuable one.

Four ways the BPI has helped expand industry knowledge, from crude oil to air flow, fine art to summer eating…

1. Rocks and hard places: enhanced oil recovery

Research at the BPI plays a large part in the development of and decision to deploy enhanced oil recovery (EOR) techniques. For example, work in the lab into the relationship between oil and water of varying salinity was vital to BP’s decision to invest in LoSal® technology, to be deployed at the Clair Ridge field west of Shetland, right from field start-up. 

This technique sees low-salinity water pumped into hydrocarbon reservoirs to help release more oil from the rocks. These studies helped provide the proof BP needed to make an informed investment decision - the LoSal® technology is expected to enable the recovery of an additional 40million barrels of oil from Clair Ridge when it starts up in 2017.

2. Up in the air: natural ventilation and heat flow

The BPI research into the physics of heat transfer and natural ventilation helps architects and designers to make buildings more energy-efficient and environmentally friendly. Through studying the way incoming fresh air mixes with air already in a chamber, the scientists’ work has contributed to the design of low-energy heating systems, called “mixing ventilation systems”, for large buildings, including in BP’s North Sea headquarters in Aberdeen.  

This technology was spun out of Cambridge University, with support from BP, in 2006 to form Breathing Buildings, a natural ventilation company whose technology has been deployed in more than 100 UK schools and is part of BP's corporate venturing portfolio.

3. Getting between the cracks: paint

The BPI has undertaken research into the fluid mechanics of films, such as those that form on the surface of paint as it dries. Experiments performed at the Institute have significantly enhanced understanding of particle behaviour in paint and the pattern of the cracking that occurs when it dries and also if the dried paint is stretched. 

Not only has this knowledge contributed to the work of art restoration specialists, including those working on Old Masters, it is also of huge value to the paint manufacturing industry as it seeks to meet ever more stringent health, safety and environmental regulations.

4. The perfect dessert: ice cream

Despite the unlikely connection, research into ice cream has important relevance to oil production. Work by the BPI to better understand the formation and growth of ice crystals - knowledge that is very useful to ice cream makers who want to craft the perfect frozen dessert and avoid a ‘grainy’ feel - also has importance in oil production and increasing knowledge about hydrates, which can form in the well or pipeline and block it. 

Hydrates are ice-like crystals which include trapped gas, such as methane or carbon dioxide within the crystal structure. If they form in a pipeline, the pipe may become blocked and prevent flow.

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