It's a simple fact that the more fluid an oil is, the easier it is to pump. That's why oil companies typically heat sections of pipeline, to reduce the viscosity of the crude oil traveling within. Generating that heat still requires a fair amount of energy, however, plus the oil's reduced viscosity produces turbulence in its flow. Temple University's Prof. Rongjia Tao has developed what may be a better alternative – a device that electrifies the oil.

Tao first conceived of the concept in 2006, and has since collaborated with energy company Save The World Air, Inc. (STWA) to create the Applied Oil Technology (AOT) device.

Attached to a pipeline, it produces an electric field that runs in the same direction as the oil flow. This causes dissolved particulate matter distributed throughout the oil to temporarily coagulate into nano-scale particle clusters. These clusters present less surface area than all the individual particles did on their own, thus lowering the oil's viscosity in the direction that it's flowing. At the same time, however, its viscosity perpendicular to the flow increases, thus minimizing turbulence.

When the technology was tested on a section of the Keystone pipeline in Kansas last summer, it reportedly allowed the same flow rate to be maintained while using 75 percent less pumping power – 0.7 megawatts instead of the 2.8 required without the AOT. As for the the device itself, it uses 720 watts.

After being treated by the AOT, oil retains its lower viscosity for over 11 hours. With that in mind, Tao suggests that pipelines could be outfitted with devices placed at regular intervals, in order to keep the oil from thickening up again.

Another test of the system, on a pipeline in South Texas, was announced last month.

Several years ago Tao and STWA collaborated on a device that works on a similar principle, which is claimed to increase the efficiency of internal combustion engines by reducing the viscosity of fuel.