Crude Oil Characterization 2018-10-01T15:50:09+00:00

Crude Oil Characteristics Research

Crude Oil Characteristics Research

The United States and Canada jointly research the risks associated with transporting conventional and tight crude oil, such as fires, explosions, and pollution. There is growing public concern over the safety of transporting large quantities of crude oil, especially “tight oil” that is predominantly produced and transported in the northern United States and Canada. Derailed trains that were carrying crude oil have raised concerns about transporting crude oil by rail. Several rail accidents in 2013-2015 in the United States and Canada carrying crude oil produced from the Bakken region of North Dakota have raised questions at many levels about safely transporting Bakken and other types of crude oil by train.

Commissioned by the U.S. Department of Energy and U.S. Department of Transportation, Sandia investigates the material properties of crude oils, in particular the so-called “tight oils” like Bakken. Bakken oil comprises the majority of crude oil rail shipments in the United States. Sandia plans and executes the characterization tests and has partnered with several oil and gas companies and the strategic petroleum reserve to obtain samples.


The risks of crude oil transportation are shared by both the United States and Canada. By coordinating research and pooling expertise and funding, crude oil research can be accelerated, improving protection for the public and transportation networks in both countries. The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), in cooperation with the Federal Railroad Administration and Transport Canada (TC), launched the Sampling, Analysis and Experiment (SAE) Plan, a crude oil characterization study. The intent of the research study is to characterize tight and conventional crude oils based on key chemical and physical qualities, including combustion characteristics for pool fires and fireballs.

Sandia’s Crude Oil Characterization Project successfully completed a systems test for a large-scale, unconventional crude oil fireball test. The systems tests are part of an effort to investigate why crude oil from certain wells in Canada has exploded during rail transport to the United States. Conducted at Sandia’s Lurance Canyon Burn Facility, the test used jet fuel to verify that Sandia can conduct large-scale fireball tests using crude oil. The system required a unique design to retain the volatile part of crude oil that is thought to affect the way crude oil burns. The planned fireball test sequence will be the first of its kind.