“One of the drives I always had has been to explore beyond the visible horizon.”
Those are the sentiments from this year’s Robert R. Berg Outstanding Research Award winner, Daniele Colombo, senior geophysical consultant for Aramco in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia.
The drive he talks about can – literally, he said – be traced back to a fixed point in time.
“Since a young age, I was an avid collector of minerals and fossils, but the first turning point that I clearly remember was when, for my 10th birthday, a family friend brought me a copy of ‘Le Scienze’ (Italian edition of Scientific American), featuring an article of emeritus MIT professor Nafi Toksöz on Earth geodynamics, earthquakes and seismic waves through the Earth interior. This, somehow, remained imprinted in my imagination for the years to follow,” he said.
This was a 10-year-old boy, let’s remember. Fast-forward 15 years, when Colombo found himself in Costa Rica, collaborating with the two national seismological networks for collecting teleseismic and local earthquake data that he used for his doctoral work of imaging the subducted slab on the Pacific side of the country.
So, why was he in Costa Rica to begin with? Well, you need to go back to his thoughts on what lies on the other side of the horizon.
“Italy, for how much I loved it, was too narrow, so I started my journey. International experience in academics and work was especially useful for getting to know the essence of people, regardless of social or geographical boundaries,” he said.
Tackling the Tough Stuff
Colombo, who is currently at the Advanced Research Center at Aramco’s upstream research center, said he has a special passion for geosciences and geophysics, especially the tough stuff. And it is tackling the tough stuff that gets people the Robert R Berg Outstanding Research Award.
“The more difficult the challenge,” said Colombo, “the more interesting the problem to solve.”
At the heart of his work is the specific (and difficult) challenge of fluid monitoring, for it represents a potential lucrative opportunity for electromagnetic-based methods, as well as for seismic integration and joint inversion.
“The sensitivity of the geophysical measurements to the fluid substitution is pointing to resistivity measurements, hence electromagnetic techniques,” he said. Considering one must balance among signal-to-noise, resolution and dimensionality, Colombo believes surface-borehole EM is the best option to achieve it.
“Surface-only EM measurements have not enough penetration, especially on land where the amount of current that can be effectively transmitted to the ground is limited. Single borehole or cross-borehole have limited penetration or reduced dimensionality. Surface-borehole EM, with the correct setup and technical implementations described, qualifies as an industrial viable solution for reservoir fluid monitoring,” Colombo explained.
He said his work and research can be expanded and used for several different reservoirs and can be expanded to field-scale permanent monitoring.
The Work Yet To Be Accomplished
Specifically, though, when asked about the Berg Award and what it means, Colombo sees it not just as an honor for the work he’s done, but as an affirmation of the work that still needs to be accomplished.
“As mentioned earlier, reservoir monitoring and management have to do with several different sources of data that, taken individually, do not typically suffice to explain the whole problem. Data integration is a key component in reservoir studies and multi-parameter integration/inversion via conventional methods or through machine learning techniques is one of the future opportunities,” he said.
All this takes time.
“I have been investigating quantitative multi-parameter inversion techniques for the last 20 years,” Colombo said, adding that previous years’ interests and developments are in the areas of machine learning applied to inversion and to physics-driven deep learning inversion and joint inversion.
“As per the specific EM technology, I am working on borehole sensor development based on capacitive electric field measurements and fiber optic EM measurements, for permanent installations in the reservoir,” he said.
That work doesn’t happen accidentally or alone.
“This is a great opportunity and I am sure I will leave many people out,” he laughed, when asked about those who helped him attain the success he has. He names present and past collaborators, including many from his Multi-Physics Reservoir Team at Aramco, and his biographer, Stephen Hallinan.
There are others, too, and they have nothing to do with geology.
“All my respect and love go to my parents Mario and Giuseppina, who always sustained and encouraged me in life. Finally, my wife, Lastri, is and has always been a pillar in my life: a source of positivity, love and lucid analysis. Our teenage children Sara and Lorenzo are our jewels and we look forward to their development as they grow up,” said Colombo.
He sees the “Internet of things, smart sensors, high-performance computing and advanced analytics” as those other elements of the profession that will push the boundaries of what can be achieved.
“The rapidly evolving technology will introduce huge amounts of new opportunities to everyone and the next decade will see the flourishing of new ideas and applications. This process is happening at unprecedented speed and requires opening our minds and reconsideration of what we know. This is an exciting time for research. The challenge will be merging established knowledge and new opportunities to generate new ideas and applications through a seamless transition,” he said.
As for the road ahead, Colombo sounds like he’s still looking beyond the visible horizon.
“Technology development has been accelerating in the last few years and we are at the early stages of the new industrial revolution,” he said.