In the last two months, I have been to an international conference, our own International Conference and Exhibition (ICE), and the Gulf Coast Section, Eastern Section and Pacific/Rocky Mountain Section meetings. The meetings were mostly lightly attended, but the geologists in attendance were enthusiastic and optimistic about their profession, even if some were apprehensive about their immediate employment futures.
At each of these events, I met with student chapter groups and I was usually accompanied by other AAPG Delegates, Executive Committee members, or AAPG staff. The student chapter leaders and members were enthusiastic and energetic. They were in various stages of undergraduate and graduate programs and many were preparing to graduate soon. Each had questions about their opportunities and their future.
In the present business climate, those aren’t easy questions to answer. Stressing their love for geology to carry them forward was the main theme of our discussions. They had questions about what types of fields would be best to pursue, whether to get a master’s degree or doctorate, and they always finished with “What’s the price of oil going to be?” We could recommend fields and particularly types of companies, such as smaller independents, service companies, or non-petroleum disciplines to which they might not have been exposed in school, since many students think along the lines of major oil companies and national oil companies. In the end though, while we talk about careers, they are just thinking about their first job.
We also met with Members who were Young Professionals. Many were employed, but some were recently unemployed. These were experienced geologists early in their careers who had many of the same qualities and asked the same questions as the students. The advice was along the lines of learning more of the tools in common use among the smaller companies, such as PC-based workstation software, and expanding their scope of knowledge into petrophysics and other related fields. The PC-based software is in far broader use than the high-end products that are more often limited to larger companies and universities.
But even more importantly, how is future innovation going to affect the geoscience career?
Past innovations in the petroleum geology field are advances like wire line electric logs (the oldest I’ve used for interpretation was run in 1930 in a well in South Texas), improved drilling techniques that permit deeper drilling and in more hostile drilling environments, offshore drilling, 2-D seismic, 3-D seismic, horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing.
Many of these, you might say, are engineering innovations, but they were either driven by geologic exploration pushing the envelope toward new frontiers, or as an iterative process of geology and engineering with a back-and-forth advancement in each of the fields.
The latest example of this innovation are the unconventional plays, which have virtually reversed the production decline in the United States by exploring and developing the source rock itself.
What are some of the potential new innovations that we can see today? The following are but a few possibilities:
Come on now — if these were available when we were in school or early in our careers, what would we be doing differently today?
Well built, fairly inexpensive flying machines, capable of carrying high-resolution cameras and other remote sensing tools — LiDAR, geochem sampling, surface logging equipment — using GPS (another innovation I didn’t mention earlier) for accurate location. What if you could do an airborne gas detection survey over an area and map it? Literally, the sky’s the limit.
Mapping an outcrop in detail without having to climb over all of it, surface geological mapping and other uses like environmental mapping and accurate location of geological features in the field — these are just a few applications for drones (see related articles on pages 14 and 26). How much more of the study area could you cover in a fraction of the time, allowing you to focus on the anomalies and points of interest with an on-the-ground follow up?
Not only can fieldwork be done faster, but so much more field work is possible because the cost (in time) is dramatically reduced. Drones are already being used for pipeline inspection and facilities inspection.
What could you do with a drone?
“nan·o·tech·nol·o·gy: the branch of technology that deals with dimensions and tolerances of less than 100 nanometers, especially the manipulation of individual atoms and molecules.”
It is a young field of study of a world so small we can’t see it, even with a light microscope. This is a technology of building machines at a molecular, or even subatomic, level.
In 1981, scientists gained a new tool powerful enough to allow them to see single atoms. This device, the scanning tunneling microscope, uses a tiny electric current and very fine needle to detect the height of individual atoms, and pick up, move, and precisely place atoms, one at a time. Right now, nanotechnology is being studied primarily for materials science, chemistry and medicine.
It is a science in its early stages, but what if it, instead of water and gas floods of reservoirs, could eventually be used for enhanced recovery by using molecular alteration to increase reservoir permeability or change fluid viscosity? What if it could be applied to block water production in a reservoir, or used as a replacement of hydraulic fracturing by changing the rock properties of the formation?
The impact on geoscience would be immense, opening up the field of reservoir revitalization, recovering hydrocarbons left behind in an old field.
Nanotechnology falls in the category of “too soon to tell” right now, but the potential for the future makes it something to watch.
Machine learning is a type of artificial intelligence (AI) that endows computers with the ability to learn without being explicitly programmed, and focuses on programs that can teach themselves to grow and change when exposed to new data.
To a degree, it is being used already on 3-D seismic volumes in searching the volume for attributes that can lead to hydrocarbon identification by reviewing more variables than an interpreter can normally view and handle.
But it is not limited to seismic applications. In many areas, particularly in unconventional plays, so much data is being acquired by logs, MWD, pressures, drilling parameters, completion information and production information that the biggest challenge is simply the accumulation of all of this data in a repository that can be used for data analysis. Like nanotechnology, this is a fairly new field.
In summary, there are a few innovative techniques that might lead to common usage in geoscience.
However — as with many innovations — there is likely a technology we are not even aware of right now that could have the biggest impact on our science.