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Every Last Drop: The First Female Scientist in Petroleomics at Aramco

One of the most treasured pieces of equipment at Aramco’s Research and Development Center may also have the most impressive name. The Fourier Transform Ion Cyclotron Resonance Mass Spectrometry machine is a mouthful to say, and it carries a hefty price tag of $1 million USD. Also known as the FT-ICR MS, it is the most valuable instrument of its kind in the Middle East, and it is used to measure the molecular weight of ions with very high accuracy, based on their behavior in a fixed magnetic field.

At Aramco, Dr. Nadrah Alawani is entrusted with the operation of this prized technology. In her daily work, the scientist and mother-of-two works on the molecular level characterization of hydrocarbon streams, polymers, oil field chemicals and fuel additives. Her field, referred to as petroleomics, requires the application of chemical analysis to study petroleum oil at a molecular level during every stage of oil and gas production, from “well to wheel.”

“I’m producing a huge amount of detailed information on the chemical makeup of crude oils and oil fractions,” she said. “My team works on modeling systems to make the most out of this information and integrate this knowledge with industry processes. One day I hope to know all the details about our oil, to help Aramco maximize the benefit from every drop – and create value down to the bottom of the barrel.”

Dr. Alawani studied in the US and holds a Ph.D. in chemistry from the University of Akron. A lover of both math and chemistry since she was young, she recalls the first time she was really fascinated by chemistry after being introduced to the periodic table.

“I was immediately drawn to the different elements and their properties. Such as the way two basic elements like hydrogen and oxygen gases can join together to form a liquid water molecule. Since then, I was thirsty for more knowledge. As an “A” student, I was able to choose any major to pursue at university. Following my passion, and to the anguish of my math teacher, I chose the subject of chemistry to find out more about that mysterious world.”

To the relief of her math teacher, her job requires the regular use of both math and chemistry. Her experience at Aramco, through her interactions with research teams, engineers and the international petroleomics research community, has put her on the path to becoming a true expert in her field.

Dr. Alawani has presented academic and professional work at major international conferences, including ChemIndix, Labtech and the annual conference of the American Society for Mass Spectrometry. She has also published six peer-reviewed papers, 15 conference proceedings, and received two patents for her work, with two more pending.

However, she remains driven by an ambition to continue making advances that will support the long-term sustainability of the oil sector. “I need to continuously develop and expand my knowledge into new applications: polymers, materials, surface analysis and other exciting innovations,” she said. “This will allow me to provide new applications for our researchers and engineers. Through my work I hope to contribute to technology development for Aramco, and ultimately to support the diversification of the Saudi economy for future generations.” 

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