China will blast crude oil into space next week, to learn more about oil reservoirs lying tens of thousands of feet beneath the earth's surface.
The experiment will look at how molecules in oil redistribute under intense pressures and uneven temperatures. Researchers want to sharpen their understanding of deep crude oil reservoirs up to eight kilometres underground.
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The findings will also interest the oil and gas industry, which could use the data to make better decisions regarding future exploration projects.
Olivier Minster, head of the physical sciences at ESA, said: "Imagine a packet of cornflakes – over time the smaller flakes drop to the bottom under gravity. On a molecular scale this experiment is doing something similar but then looking at how temperature causes fluids to rearrange in weightlessness."
"Deep underground, crushing pressure and rising temperature as one goes down is thought to lead to a diffusion effect – petroleum compounds moving due to temperature, basically defying gravity."
“Over geological timescales, heavier deposits end up rising, while lighter ones sink."
"“The aim is to quantify this effect in weightlessness, to make it easier to create computer models of oil reservoirs that will help guide future decisions on their exploitation.”
The SJ-10 satellite will hold six cylinders each containing just one millilitre of crude oil, but compressed up to 500 times normal pressure at sea level on Earth. This makes it one of the highest-pressure items ever launched into space.
It will spend almost two weeks in orbit before it returns to Earth. After landing in China, the team will retrieve the experiment for detailed analysis.
The experiment is a partnership between ESA, China’s National Space Science Centre, France’s Total oil company and China’s PetroChina oil company.