by Sean Mallany

    Ingenious Innovations – New Technologies in Onshore and Offshore Drilling

    Saudi Aramco’s “Reservoir Robots”

    One of the most difficult challenges that any oil company faces is ­managing an oil reservoir. Examining the conditions of such ­reservoirs and monitoring changes are key concerns for managing a well. With these types of challenges in mind, Saudi Aramco has developed ­“Reservoir Robots” or “Resbots” for short. These tiny nano-robots, many times smaller than the size of a human hair, are designed to enter a reservoir and monitor conditions within. The tiny size of the Resbots gives them access to specific conditions within rock pores within a reservoir. After being injected with water into a well, Resbots will flow into tiny rock pores to gather additional information about well conditions.

    The Resbots can report on temperatures, analyze pressure ­readings, and examine the types of fluid within the reservoir. Once the ­Resbots are recovered from a wellsite, this type of information can be ­instrumental in assessing conditions and making production decisions.

    Saudi Aramco continues to develop the Resbots, and is researching two different types of nano-bots for different tasks. The first type of ­Resbot, as explained above, is the Active Resbots-nano-bots ­primarily designed to measure reservoir environments. The second type of ­Resbots is classified as Reactive Resbots, or bots that will be able to respond to particular conditions within a well. For example, a ­Reactive Resbot could deliver chemicals to a reservoir site to ­allow for easier flow of fluids through the rock pores. Through use of the ­Resbots, ­additional information can be gathered to respond to or change ­reservoir ­conditions.

    BP’s Reduced Salinity Water Injection

    In traditional oil extraction procedures, water is pumped through multiple layers of rock to flush out oil from in between layers of sediment. Small particles of clay are usually mixed in with the oil when it is removed from the surrounding rock. One challenge during this process is how to separate the particles of clay from the surrounding oil. To address this challenge more effectively than traditional technologies, British ­Petroleum has developed technology to inject low salinity water into well sites. This low salinity water separates clay from oil more effectively than normal well flooding, allowing for more oil to be extracted than what was previously possible.

    This innovation is significant because it will enable an additional 700 million barrels of oil to be harvested if this technology is applied to all of BP’s global operations. This low salinity water technology also allows older wells to remain economically viable for a longer period of time. As a result of these economic savings, BP has already implemented the low salinity water injection technology to all of its upstream projects from now on (assuming the application of this technology is feasible and appropriate).

    “Quest” Carbon Capture And Storage Project

    One of the most ambitious technological projects within Canada’s oil and gas industry today is Royal Dutch Shell’s “Quest” Carbon Capture and Storage project. Quest is designed to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere from projects in the Athabasca oil sands. Carbon dioxide that is produced in oil extraction operations will be condensed within Shell’s Scotford Upgrader, located in northern Alberta. After this carbon dioxide is condensed into a liquid form, it will then be pumped via pipeline 80 kilometers to the north to ­injection wells. These wells will then take the liquefied CO2 and inject it two ­kilometers beneath the Earth’s surface. The CO2 will then condense and seep into dense rock layers, instead of polluting our atmosphere and contributing to global climate change.

    Shell will also closely monitor the environment near the injection wells, including regular testing of nearby groundwater, measuring the ­pressure and noise underground to detect any potential problems or side effects of the CO2 injections, and ensure that any environmental changes are examined and minimized.

    The Quest project is estimated to reduce Shell’s CO2 emissions in the ­oil sands by up to 35 percent. This is equivalent to removing 175,000 cars off Canadian roads. This significance also allows for new ­technology to be used, examined, and improved upon. With Carbon Capture and Storage being supported by different levels of ­government in Canada, this has the potential to dramatically ­reduce carbon ­emissions for Shell in the near future, and eventually the ­broader oil and gas industry as a whole as Carbon Capture and Storage ­technology develops.

    Oil Sands Recovery Via Electromagnetic Heating Technology

    One of the most difficult problems in oil sands extraction ­projects is pumping the oil from deep underground towards the surface for ­extraction. Contemporary solutions to this problem involve ­steam-assisted gravity drainage or cyclic steam stimulation, both of which require water and energy to separate bitumen from the oil sands. A new approach, pioneered by Laricina Energy, Nexen Inc., Suncor Energy, and the Harris Corporation involves heating the oil sands via radio waves produced by a nearby antenna. After the oil sands are heated, an oil solvent is injected to further separate bitumen and extract it at the surface.

    This technique, known as the Enhanced Solvent Extraction ­Incorporating Electromagnetic Heating (ESEIEH for short, pronounced as “easy”), ­allows for bitumen extraction with a reduced amount of electricity and completely removes the need for water during extraction. ESEIEH also reduces capital costs, the amount of greenhouse gases released while bitumen is acquired, and permits previously uneconomic wells to be accessed due to reduced extraction costs. While ESEIEH is still in the early testing phases, this new technology has great potential to reduce both the economic costs and environmental impact of bitumen extraction.

    Enersaver Kinetic Energy Pumpjacks

    Cruise along Western Canada long enough, and you are sure to see ­numerous oil pumpjacks. They are so numerous that an estimated 150,000 pumpjacks exist within Alberta alone, not counting the rest of Canada or indeed all of the pumpjacks all over the world. The rise and fall of the pumpjack represents an opportunity for CCW Energy Systems, which has developed a new pumpjack controller that ­converts some of the kinetic energy generated when a pumpjack falls downward.

    In the picture at this site, the oil producer in Northern Alberta ­receives a credit each and every month for the generation on their ­power bill for $300, which is processed by Valeo, the retailer. Mike Lesanko, the Vice President of Product Design at CCW Energy ­Systems, notes that “What is really amazing is this generative portion is paid at the pool or wholesale price in Alberta. If this was in an area of North America where the generative was paid at the NET or consumption price, it would have almost 50 percent more credit.”

    This kinetic energy is converted into electricity, which can then be used to keep the pumpjack in motion. Excess energy that cannot be used can then be sold back into the electrical grid. CCW Energy systems has already had applications successfully approved with both ATCO and Fortis to use pumpjacks to sell electricity back into the local ­energy grid.This act of selling power back to the grid can help to reduce the significant electrical costs of keeping a pumpjack moving. CCW ­Energy Systems used the example of a single well in Alberta producing a regular $300 credit each month for electricity sold back into the local electrical grid. This translates into significant cost savings for a device that also simultaneously reduces the amount of electricity required for operation. This type of innovative technological change can prove that reducing costs and environmental impacts can go hand-in-hand.

    Underwater Emergency Training With Submersible Helicopter Models

    Technology in the oil and gas industry is not only used to increase oil yields or reduce the environmental impact of projects—it is also ­changing the face of the industry’s safety and training efforts. A good example of technological change in safety procedures is Nexen’s ­underwater emergency training in the North Sea operations. Nexen has constructed an artificial helicopter model to help new employees train and prepare for a possible helicopter crash into the sea. New recruits are taken through a series of classroom sessions to learn from a qualified safety instructor, and eventually progress to taking part in a simulated crash of the helicopter model. As the helicopter model is lowered into a deep water pool, trainees must remain calm and ­actually practice the safety response procedures they have learned, all under the careful guise of instructors and personnel equipped with scuba equipment.

    This type of training technology enables employees to actually receive hands-on experience with emergency preparedness procedures and equipment, all while keeping participants in a safe and controlled ­environment. This is one example of how technological changes can impact all types of operations in oil and gas companies.

    Developing Flexible Pipes To Manage Swells In The Sea

    As offshore oil platforms begin to move into deeper and deeper waters, companies are faced with new challenges. One of these challenges involves sea swells that force pipes and undersea technology to shift in place as the sea water moves. This is exemplified by Shell’s “Parque das Conches” project off the coast of Brazil. Pipes connecting ­subsea equipment on the ocean floor deliver extracted oil to a floating ­production, storage and offloading vessel that refines and moves the product back to shore. The difficulty is that traditional pipe designs came under significant stress as water currents near the project cause the sea level to rise and fall at different times. Shell developed steel pipes up to several kilometers long that were able to expand and ­contract with the swell of the sea. The new design also prevents fractures in the pipes and metal fatigue. This type of pipe design can act as a model for future offshore drilling projects to ensure that equipment and facilities can adapt to changes in the surrounding environment.

    Reducing Sound From Underwater Drilling Operations

    One type of pollution that may not always get the most ­headlines in the press is the noise pollution caused by subsea drilling and ­equipment. Despite noise not being the most obvious form of ­pollution, excess exposure to noise can damage marine life in ­underwater ­operations. Shell is addressing this challenge in the company’s ­arctic ­operations, and applying new technologies to reduce the amount ­released into ­surrounding areas. In addition to measuring noise l­evels caused by equipment, Shell has also been using ­multiple ­acoustic barriers ­between equipment and the environment. Shell also ­creates new ­barriers in the form of a bubble curtain made of plastic spheres to ­surround and minimize sound from offshore installations. ­Another form of insulating equipment has been using generators to ­create air bubbles to surround subsea operations with a muffling cone of air. While not eliminating noise released into the surrounding sea, both the plastic spheres and air bubbles are examples of technologies that minimize noise pollution in arctic operations.

    Gullfaks Wet Gas Compression Technology

    As more oil and gas projects are projected to begin in harsher and more remote areas, improving the recovery rates from existing projects is one way of reducing costs while still increasing oil supplies. One way of increasing recovery rates is to improve gas compression technology in subsea facilities, such as StatOil’s Gullfaks wet gas compression technology. By placing a wet gas compressor on the ocean’s surface in the Gullfaks South Brent reservoir, the gas can be compressed on the subsea equipment instead of the surface of the water. When the gas is compressed, it flows more easily and more quickly upwards to a nearby platform. Once the gas reaches the surface platform, it can be processed while subsea wells continue to extract and send gas upward. StatOil estimates that this compression technology will increase the recovery rate in the Gullfaks field from 62 to 74 percent—a 12 percent increase. This translates to up to 22 million new barrels of oil from the Gullfaks field alone.

    What makes this wet gas compression technology more interesting is how it can be applied to multiple projects and is not limited to the Gullfaks field. With this innovation being spread towards multiple oil fields, it has the potential to dramatically improve access and yield rates in existing facilities.

    Dow’s Subsea Insulation System – Neptune

    Temperature and pipe corrosion are two consistent problems for ­offshore oil and gas production. One way of addressing these ­problems is the use of a new insulation system developed by Dow, known as the NEPTUNE Advanced Subsea Flow Assurance System. NEPTUNE is comprised of two layers of chemicals applied to underwater ­piping. First, a layer of epoxy is applied to the pipe to resist corrosion. ­Second, a polyether thermoset is applied to increase insulation from the ­outside environment, known as the NEPTUNE Flow Assurance Insulation ­Coating. This second coating is so effective that it allows pipelines to operate at temperatures from -40° to -160° Celsius. In addition to these harsh temperatures, NEPTUNE can be applied up to 4,000 meters beneath the ocean’s surface.

    Sean Mallany

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