Deep-sea data makes oil production smarter

Last edited: 18 May 2015

Seabed technology is advancing - but what do the inventor of the light bulb, a French microbiologist and deep-sea fishing have to do with it? BP Magazine hears more from chief operating officer for reservoir development and technology, James Dupree

“The energy industry faces an unexpected challenge. Twenty years ago many thought the issue would be dwindling resources. But that is one problem we don’t have. The world is not short of oil and gas - discovered reserves alone account for more than 50 years’ worth at current consumption rates.

Instead, the challenge is that of producing resources that lie in difficult-to-reach places, such as complex shale formations or beneath the oceans, when oil prices have returned to their volatile pattern and currently stand at around $60 a barrel.  

Three scientists, three research quadrants

One of the main ways to resolve this challenge is through new technology and when it comes to looking for new advances, scientists talk about three ‘quadrants’ of research: firstly, the ‘Bohr quadrant’ – named for atomic physicist Niels Bohr – is pure, basic ‘blue sky’ research.

The ‘Edison quadrant’ – named for Thomas Edison, inventor of the light bulb – covers applied research, focused on specific uses.

Then, there is the ‘Pasteur quadrant’ – named for the French microbiologist Louis Pasteur – a hybrid area where scientists have one eye on advancing fundamental understanding and the other on how such advances can be applied.

Two-thirds of our upstream technology development spending goes into the Edison area, as one might expect, but nearly a third is invested in the Pasteur quadrant.  This is because Pasteur is where cutting-edge, game-changing technologies come from

Until recently, our industry has been about horsepower: heavier equipment, thicker steel, more water injected and so on. But the future is going to be more about being smarter. And that means greater understanding of fundamental science.
"The next generation of advances may depend not only on how innovative we can be, but how collaborative."
- James Dupree

New materials

Advancing materials science, for example, offers many possibilities, using crystallography, nanotechnology, atomic structure, thermodynamics, kinetics and other specialisms to create new alloys as well as self-healing coatings and other forms of tougher, more corrosion-resistant infrastructure.  This is why BP has established the $100-million BP-ICAM (International Centre for Advanced Materials) with some of the world’s top academic materials scientists.    

Such teams are effectively building a next generation of equipment for an industry that is already operating complex sub-sea systems that resemble underwater cities.
Key components are pumps, ‘trees’ that sit above wellheads to control flow, and manifolds that collect and distribute oil from the trees. Connected to these are flow-lines and umbilical cables that carry power and communications. 

And working at pressures no human diver could withstand, the equipment is positioned by remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) – underwater robots.  Beneath all of this, wells are drilled through as much as five or six miles of rock down to oil and gas reservoirs.  Above are floating platforms to which oil and gas is conveyed via lines called ‘risers’.

As well as new materials, researchers are examining the potential of wireless technology which could provide these pieces of equipment with their own power and communications, possibly eliminating the need for umbilicals and reducing ROV use.

Ocean bottom nodes

We’re also looking hard at the receivers that bounce seismic imaging signals back to the surface. Conventionally receivers have been attached to the ships that carry out surveys via long streamers.

But a little over a decade ago, BP worked with partners to create receivers that sit on the seabed, known as ‘ocean bottom nodes’, making it possible for smaller vessels on the surface to take soundings from many different angles and generate clearer images – as well as repeating surveys to show how the reservoir is changing over time.

The initial work on positioning nodes drew on military applications. Now the energy sector is looking to a different area for inspiration – fishing. That industry uses similar technology to harvest fish and its experience may help us get even smarter at positioning the nodes. 

Algorithms and analytics

Massive flows of data from sensors and surveys create their own challenges and smart algorithms and analytics are required to convert them into user-friendly information.

An example is a set of consoles called BP Well Advisor that provides dashboards for drilling teams. One of these provides information on ‘casing running’ – lowering pipes into wellbores. It’s a delicate process and a stuck casing can mean extra costs and delays. We’ve now used Well Advisor on 400 casing runs without a single stuck pipe.

Generally, progress is about interaction between technology and people. As BP-ICAM demonstrates, we see the importance of working with expert partners. We’re now deploying EOR technologies that took two decades to develop in-house. We believe we can halve the cycle time for the next generation by involving more partners – academic scientists and field trial specialists.

As an industry we need to see if we can go even further. Technology holds out some amazing opportunities – but the human factor is critical too. The next generation of advances may depend not only on how innovative we can be, but how collaborative.” 

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