The idea of using lasers for drilling into the earth has long been to the oil and gas industry what flying cars and hoverboards are to the general public – the stuff of science fiction and futuristic fantasy.
As 2015 fast approaches (contrary to what we were promised in the "Back to the Future" movies) we haven't quite cracked the code yet on flying cars and hoverboards, but there might be a consolation prize in the works: Laser-drilling may actually become a reality.
"Lasers are really very, very easy," said AAPG member Ramona Graves, professor at the Colorado School of Mines and founder of Foro Energy.
Graves and her company are actively working toward commercializing high-powered lasers for the oil, natural gas, geothermal and mining industries - a technological advance long-awaited by many in the industry.
Her company specializes in using fiber optic cables to drill, complete and work over wells.
"The physics are very well understood," she said. "Laser energy - light energy – is amazing.
"What makes this at all interesting is that rocks are complicated," she added. "Every rock is unique."
Economic and Technical Hurdles
Laser drilling was first thought up back in the 1970s, Graves said, but laser technology itself wasn't sufficiently advanced for it to be feasible. But as technology improved from 10-kilowatt lasers to megawatt lasers that carry the capability of thousands of watts, the possibility that it could be used for drilling became more of a reality.
In 1998, Graves, then the dean of the College of Earth Resource Sciences and Engineering at Colorado School of Mines, and her colleague, Darien O'Brien, submitted a proposal to the Gas Research Institute, now Gas Technology Institute, to revolutionize drilling technology by using high-powered military lasers, which Congress had recently decided could be released to the general public.
"That's a beautiful example of innovation and sharing technologies across disciplines," Graves said. "The laser industry, they're the physicists. They couldn't even think of a use for high-powered lasers."
Graves, who is a reservoir engineer, said she didn't know enough about drilling engineering at the time to think it was impossible to use lasers to drill rocks.
Up until that point, there were significant drawbacks to laser technology, namely the economics. In the past 15 years, though, the costs of fiber laser have dropped from more than $1,000 per watt to less than $50 per watt.
The power availability also has increased from less than one kilowatt to more than 50 kilowatts with new developments in fiber laser technology.
Not only that, but Foro Energy, which was formed in 2009, demonstrated that high-power, long-distance fiber transmission could be achieved without a phenomenon known as "stimulated Brillouin scattering" and other non-linear effects, which can choke the transmission of high-power laser photons in a fiber-optic cable.
By showing that stimulated Brillouin scattering could be overcome, Graves said, Foro Energy has shown that high-power laser transmission over distances comparable to the lower-power telecom cables is possible.
By overcoming these obstacles, Graves and her company showed that lasers could indeed be used to drill holes in rocks.
"Rocks and lasers have great affinity for each other," she said. "What's really nice is that the harder the rock, the better the lasers work. Lasers like dense things. They don't like things with holes in them."
Not Ready for Prime Time
Foro Energy, which has a research lab in Colorado and a development lab in Houston, received an award from the U.S. Department of Energy's ARPA-E transformational energy technology program for its innovative work.
"We delivered the fiber energy through a coil-tubing rig and proved that the concept could work on a big scale," Graves said. "That's come a long way."
Understanding the rocks can be a challenge, though. The lasers are very well understood, Graves said, but the properties of the rocks and how they respond to laser technology is not as easy. There are different behaviors between various types of rocks such as granite, sandstone and shales.
"Because they have different chemical compositions and different depositional environments, the way lasers interact with them is quite different," she said, adding that earth stresses are not an issue with lasers.
Paul Deutch, president and CEO of Foro Energy, said confidentiality contracts prevent him from discussing projects, but he did provide information on an agreement with Petrobras. The program with Petrobas' research center, the Leopoldo Americo Miguez de Mello Research and Development Center, will focus on developing a next generation high-power laser drilling system, with the final goal of achieving a step change in the drilling of the pre-salt reservoir.
The agreement, which was announced in August, sets the stage for research between the two entities over three years, with the possibility for extensions.
Graves also was unable to provide specific details on where the technology is headed due to the confidential nature of Foro's contracts, but she said it is not moving in the direction of drilling.
Right now, she said, lasers would be good for perforating.
"We proved we can do coiled-tubing drilling, but that is a longer-term development," she said.
It's economical to drill, but it's a cutting-edge revolutionary technology in an industry that is a bit gun-shy at the moment, she said, adding that newer shale plays may renew interest.
Meanwhile, Argonne National Laboratory, which had been researching the feasibility of adapting high-power laser technology for drilling for gas and oil, has been unable to secure funding from the U.S. Department of Energy or any of the major oil service companies for laser/rock research and development since about the 2004-06 timeframe, according to Claude Reed, mechanical engineer at Argonne.
Brian Quirke, a spokesman with the Department of Energy Argonne site office, said the program was stopped because of changing priorities within the federal government.
"There was no more funding available for this work," said Christopher Kramer, media relations manager for Argonne National Laboratory, "so it was shut down here at Argonne."