Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Looking for Hydrocarbons - "Physics Answers These Questions"

As I wrote in an article in APS News, physicists play an integral role in the oil and gas (O & G) industry. Oil is not sitting under the ground in pools waiting for a pipe to suck it up to the surface. It exists in the microscopic pour spaces between rocks, in areas mixed with water and sand. How do you find this oil and extract it safely through an eight inch bore hole? “Physics answers these questions and gets the oil out,” stated Brian Clark, a physicist and Fellow of Schlumberger, a leading oilfield services provider.

At the APS April Meeting, Clark and two of his colleagues in O & G research discussed the latest technologies designed to locate hydrocarbons and access the liquid gold. Clark noted that as a hole is drilled, the “drill pole” (essentially the long “stick” that has the bit at the end) actually contains a series of “laboratories” or tools, to analyze the underground environment. Each tool may look at or use different techniques to examine what is in the space near it. It may collect seismic data, or utilize sonic, magnetic resonance, EM and even nuclear technologies to test for oil.

One of the major challenges of running these “laboratories” down a hole that could be miles deep, is how to ensure the tools operate properly. The tools are self-contained, remarked Clark. They have their own computers, some with 10 processors running at any given time, and are in charge of their own telemetry. “They are basically robots,” he said.

[Photo of Brian Clark, courtesy of Clark and APS]

The laboratories on the drill poles are robust and technologically sophisticated because they have to endure abundant stresses on the job. They must work for hundreds if not thousands of hours at a time
without failing, described Clark. Otherwise, for every broken drill bit or pole, it could cost a company $1 million a day. When you think about how challenging it is to send these tools down a tiny hole into the Earth and be scientifically certain they will operate correctly under extreme environmental stimuli, it was almost not a surprise to hear Clark utter “This is far more remote than what we send into space.”

While the laboratories on the drill poles perform many functions with limited operator involvement, they are not autonomous. With all the data they collect, process and send to the surface, they still can’t independently instruct an O & G employee to drill in a certain location. “We would like to see these tools more autonomous,” said Clark, “but the geology of the Earth is so complex that it is beyond the decision-making ability of the tools.”

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