We’ve already seen some of the oilfield invention and innovation that will happen during the rest of this century.
In science fiction films.
That holographic and virtual reality manipulation Tony Stark does in the “Iron Man” movies? We’ll be doing it in the workplace.
“We have been collaborating with GE on the development of some of the first oil- and gas-based applications for the Microsoft HoloLens device,” said Lynn Taggart, senior engineer for Devon Energy’s Strategic Innovation Group in Oklahoma City.
On its website, Microsoft says “HoloLens is the first self-contained, holographic computer, enabling you to engage with your digital content and interact with holograms in the world around you.”
“The device operates not in the virtual reality realm but rather in augmented or ‘mixed’ reality. This should be a tremendous breakthrough for a number of areas in our industry,” Taggart said.
“For example, our geologists and engineers are no longer limited to 2-D imagery like maps and logs. They can now all see the virtual reservoir in full 3-D form, floating in the middle of the room,” he added.
So the future explorationist will be looking at a sharply defined hologram with the ability to pull in other virtual projections and data, and to alter the imaged environment at will.
Just like in “Star Trek.”
Modeling in three dimensions is one of the three main areas driving invention in the oilfield, along with Big Data and statistical analysis, said Svetlana Ikonnikova, a research scientist and energy modeler for the Bureau of Economic Geology at the University of Texas at Austin.
“At the moment you see a lot of interest in 3-D models. You cannot drill 20,000-foot laterals without a really good understanding of the 3-D and the geology,” Ikonnikova said.
“The question is, ‘How can I do a better completion given my understanding of the rocks?’ Those models need to explain the relation between the rocks and the completion and the tools being used,” she added.
The integration of Big Data and analytics into oilfield operations is already reshaping the industry and will continue to do that for decades, Ikonnikova said.
By definition, Big Data sets are those too large to process without specialized software and greatly enhanced computing power — and those data sets keep getting bigger and more complex every year. People who work with Big Data know what number a “billiard” is.
And it’s a really big number.
“Every company already has a department for data analysis, or is about to have one,” Ikonnikova said. “This kind of integration is a big innovation on its own. This is an unprecedented innovation.”
Geoscience could be an especially fruitful area for invention and innovation through the use of analytics, Ikonnikova said.
“Geology was always a little bit underusing statistical analysis. There’s a reason for that. Statistical analysis was rough, and not really suited for some specific problems,” she noted.
“At the moment it’s just like the beginning of the shale revolution. It’s very similar now in statistics, the way I see it,” she said.
In oilfield invention “there are some trends that are clearly emerging. The primary one, far and away, is the dramatic increase in the type of sensor technologies being developed as part of the digital oilfield concept,” Taggart said.
One emerging area of invention, “and it’s almost a Holy Grail type of thing for measurement, is the development of affordable multiphase-flow sensor equipment. Wellhead mounted, it allows you to know what rates of oil, water and gas you are producing, instantaneously,” he said.
“A little bit different twist to the sensor story is the development of a new hardhat equipped with all kinds of sensors to monitor LEL levels, worker biometrics, etc.,” he said. “It’s one of the first things we’ve seen that deals with worker safety.”
Strategy and Invention
Specific problems also will attract future invention to challenges like mitigating environmental impacts. Ikonnikova cited produced water as one area of technology focus for the industry.
“Now all these tools and approaches are not only used to study production but also in water issues,” she noted. “I think this is coming, because it’s currently being studied by Schlumberger and Halliburton and other companies, how to reuse the water.”
Taggart sees this as part of a continuing trend toward “monetization of things that were previously considered waste streams.”
“To give you one example, is there iodine in your produced water?” he said.
“Companies are actually thinking way ahead now in ways and tools that can prevent negative effects. We see an unprecedented involvement by the industry in all the environmental discussions,” Ikonnikova said.
“I think consumers will come to understand that oil and gas companies are on the same side as they are,” she predicted.
Problem-driven innovation also helps the industry target practical and economic invention, and not simply change for the sake of change, or change because it’s technologically possible.
“You just have to keep your antenna up for things that are not only interesting technologically but also are commercially viable,” Taggart said.
“We have ‘innovation’ in our team name, but we also have ‘strategic,’“ said Todd Blasdel, supervisor for Devon’s Strategic Innovation Group.
“Therefore, we try to make sure that we are focused on innovative technologies that align with our strategic corporate initiatives, and that we’re not just chasing a one-off technology with limited upside,” he said.
Blasdel said it’s “exciting” to see so much advancement and to figure out how new and coming technologies can be combined, looking “for ways to understand how emerging Technology A can be coupled with emerging Technology B to increase overall impact.”
To promote the company’s interest in oilfield invention and innovation, Devon took the unusual step of sending its Strategic Innovation Group staffers to set up a booth at industry trade shows.
“We wanted to raise Devon’s visibility in the industry so people are aware that Devon is fully committed to innovation. Strategic Innovation has a budget to pursue new technologies, new ways of doing things,” Taggart said.
“We want people who have a new technology for oil and gas to think, ‘I need to pick up the phone and call Devon,’“ he added.
Taggart said Devon also looks at the question, “Is there something in another industry that can be applied to the oil and gas industry?”
“Borrowing from the aerospace industry, one area that is just now emerging in Europe is the utilization of high-strength advanced composites in place of steel, for things like casing and tubing. With composites, corrosion is a thing of the past,” he said.
Another future breakthrough could involve detectable proppant and the use of synthetic DNA, Taggart said. Right now the industry has limitations on tagging or fingerprinting proppants to find out where they end up.
“An exciting new technology that’s emerging in the completions area is detectable proppant — the ability to map where proppant resides in the formation,” he noted.
“There are now tracers being developed using synthetic DNA. Rather than only having 30 or 40 tracer profiles available, you can now have trillions of unique tracer fingerprints at your disposal,” he said.
The Google of Oil
Having earned a doctorate in economics and management science from Humboldt University in Berlin, Ikonnikova has a unusual perspective on innovation in oil and gas.
“Now as an economist, what I see is that we need to educate ourselves about the resources and how the industry works,” she observed.
“With low prices you need to find a way to develop your resources more efficiently, meaning at a lower cost per unit of production, more economically. With improved efficiency you also extend the life of the resource and make the resource more affordable,” she said.
She thinks the oil and gas industry until recently has been in the same position as the Internet before online giants like Google and Amazon came along, with unconventional resources now ushering in a new era of advancement.
“Unconventional resources are the Google and Amazon of the oil and gas industry,” she said.
In contrast with the concept that oil and gas is a mature industry, she sees a new threshold instead: “Despite all the Big Data analysis happening now, this is a very young industry,” she stated.
Going into a future full of possibilities, it can make sense for the industry to support oilfield invention and innovation wherever it can, Taggart observed.
“When we’re evaluating a new technology we’re always mindful of what the potential financial impact will be on the company. The bottom line is: Does it improves the bottom line?” he said.
If the future of oilfield invention is a jigsaw puzzle to be pieced together over the coming decades, Ikonnikova thinks the big picture has just started to come into focus.
“I still think there’s a lot to learn,” she said. “I believe we don’t have all the pieces of the puzzle.”