Colorado State University researchers study nanoparticles that could trace fracking chemicals and advance oil recovery

Jessica Golden

Colorado State University researchers are studying the movement of underground nanoparticles that have the potential to reveal fracking chemicals in the ground and help find reservoirs of untapped oil.

Assistant Professor in the Department of Design and Merchandising Vivian Li and Associate Professor in the Department of Geosciences William Sanford research the movement of these nanoparticles in an effort to follow the flow of fracking fluids.


One of the reasons why the safety of fracking is questioned is because it is unknown where the chemicals from fracking go after they have been injected into the ground and if it is contaminating groundwater.

According to a press release, in order to find out if nanoparticles can detect the path of these fracking chemicals, Li and Sanford must first understand how the nanoparticles move through different kinds of environments.

Because the reservoirs that house much of the unfound oil are deep in the Earth, the surrounding environment can be hostile and unforgiving to the nanoparticles.

Li and Sanford are constructing nanoparticles that can withstand these harsh environments in order to continue research.

“The uses of these nanoparticles are potentially quite extensive,” Sanford stated in the press release. “By creating smart particles we can see how contaminants are distributed in the subsurface, the recovery of economic minerals in water can be done, and the uses in the oil industry are many-fold.”

Because of this obstacle, they are still in the early stages of their investigation.

Even still, Li and Sanford’s research has led them to believe that the nanoparticles become fluorescent when they react to fracking chemicals.

As a result, they would be able to identify where the fracking chemicals have traveled using tracers, in order to see if it contaminates the surrounding environment.

The researchers also speculated that the tracers they would use to follow the nanoparticles could help increase the amount of oil that is taken from the ground.

Li claims this would help oil recovery and to find the reserves of oil not yet found.


“Only about 50 percent of the Earth’s oil reservoirs are being tapped,” Li stated in the press release. “With the potential to quickly drain the current oil reserves, the need to improve oil recovery and find the other hidden 50 percent becomes extremely important.”

Li and Sanford continue their study on the nanoparticles and their reaction to fracking chemicals, and hope to test their findings to improve the impact of fracking and improve the recovery of oil.

Collegian Reporter Jessica Golden can be reached at and or on Twitter @jgolden242.