Within a barrel of oil, the heaviest and lowest-quality molecules settle at the bottom. In order to convert these “bottom-of-the barrel” molecules to premium products like gasoline or jet fuel, researchers must first identify those heavy, complex materials.
Enter Amrit Jalan, a researcher for ExxonMobil. He, along with a cross-organizational team, must determine which molecules are left at the bottom.
Identifying the chemical structure of a heavy molecule is a plodding process with billions of wrong turns.
“You need patience and resolve in the face of insurmountable odds,” Jalan said.
Jalan and co-workers have developed technologies to zoom in on an answer by combining data from several sources. One source is the Fourier Transform Ion Cyclotron Resonance Mass Spectrometry, which uses a strong magnetic field that measures the mass of molecules with unprecedented accuracy.
The machine’s accuracy goes down to the mass of an electron which is about 1 trillionth of 1 billionth of the mass of a dust particle.
Ultimately, Jalan’s team is after the chemical structure, which can identify these molecules and help identify their best use. The tough part, though, is what they examine can contain up to hundreds of thousands of unique chemical formulas and hundreds of structural variations, leading to billions of possibilities.
Each development in tackling this complexity is a step toward making heavy, tough-to-use crude more usable.
“You work towards an understanding that allows you to make better decisions, because the quest is endless,” he said.