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Released December 22, 2003


HATTIESBURG - Work underway with "smart" polymers by a research group at The University of Southern Mississippi could help the country lessen its dependence on foreign oil by squeezing more from its current wells.

Novel technologies developed by Southern Miss professor Dr. Charles McCormick, assistant professor Dr. Andrew Lowe and their students will be used to recover hard-to-reach oil deep below the earth's surface.

Funded by a $1.3 million grant from the Department of Energy, the research team is preparing "smart" polymers that can be injected into oil reservoirs to push entrapped petroleum to production wells.

"These 'smart' polymers have built in sensors that respond to reservoir conditions, like temperature and salinity, and are thereby capable of mobilizing oil," McCormick said. These environmentally safe polymers are of strategic importance to the U.S. government's effort to reduce dependence on Middle Eastern oil.

According to Department of Energy estimates, more than 350 billion barrels of oil remain in domestic reserves, enough to meet the nation's needs; however, advanced technologies like the "smart" polymer must be used to affordably produce this petroleum.

"The U.S. now depends on foreign sources for more than 50 percent of its petroleum needs," McCormick said. "With escalating violence in the Middle East and the demands for environmental stewardship, we must explore new technologies for domestic production of fuel and feedstocks."

Made from biodegradable amino acids, the "smart" polymers are flooded into wells, where they release oil entrapped in the porous reservoir rock. The freed oil is then swept along through channels in the formation to the production wells.

"This research project is another outstanding example of the world-class research going on at The University of Southern Mississippi College of Science and Technology," said COST Dean Dr. Rex Gandy. "These outstanding chemists and polymer scientists are to be commended for their efforts in this scientifically challenging and socially relevant research area."

One of the project's researchers, Dr. Neil Ayers, a postdoctoral student from the University of Warwick in England, called the new environmentally friendly polymers "cutting-edge chemistry, very exciting."

"When I went looking around for different chemistry programs to do my postdoctoral work, I was attracted to Southern Miss and Dr. McCormick because of the reputation of the university and of his research group," Ayers said.

While "smart" polymers are proving useful in oil recovery, they have many other benefits. Brad Lokitz, a second-year graduate student from Ocean Springs working with the McCormick research group, said "smart" polymers could "revolutionize medicine."

"They are being used in new ways to deliver time-released drugs inside the body," Lokitz said. "They are also helpful in waste-water remediation."

Southern Miss continues to serve as a major center for fossil fuel research for the Department of Energy. McCormick and his colleague Dr. Roger Hester have received more than $12 million in research funds from the DOE and the Department of Defense for developing smart water-soluble polymers.

Dr. Angeline Dvorak, vice-president for research and economic development, said the research efforts of Dr. McCormick and his team "clearly demonstrate the capacity and commitment of The University of Southern Mississippi to address societal needs and real world problems."

"Innovation is our business," Dvorak said. "This pioneering technology is about making the world a better place, while creating new knowledge for the next generation."


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April 20, 2004 4:09 PM