BY BENJAMIN STORROW
Terms like horizontal drilling and “fracking,” as hydraulic fracturing is commonly referred to, are well known now. The two technologies have sent U.S. energy production soaring in recent years, as previously inaccessible reservoirs of oil and gas have been unlocked in places like North Dakota, Pennsylvania and New York.
American natural gas production is up by more than a quarter on the decade. In October, crude oil production reached daily levels not seen since 1989. And a recent report by the International Energy Agency projected the U.S. will become the world’s largest oil producer by 2015, surpassing the likes of Saudi Arabia and Russia.
Time to take step back and breathe a little, right? Not exactly.
Scientists at the University of Wyoming are looking at new ways to improve oil and gas recovery even further. It sounds counterintuitive at first pass. How do you improve upon the technologies that will make the U.S. the world’s energy leaders in two years’ time?
Well, consider this. The recent energy boom has largely centered on shale formations. Techniques like fracking and horizontal drilling usually help recover between 4 to 12 percent of the oil and gas those formations are estimated to contain, leaving a significant prize left trapped within the ground.
“What we want is to go beyond horizontal drilling and fracking,” said Vladimir Alvarado, associate professor of chemical and petroleum engineering at the University of Wyoming. “That is a starting point … How do we access more? That is the real R&D question.”
The university researchers like Alvarado have a significant partner in their quest. ExxonMobil donated $2.5 million to the School of Energy Resources Improved Oil and Gas Recovery program in February. The state made a matching $2.5 million contribution of its own.
So how does one go about improving oil and gas production in shale formations? In several ways it turns out. One is relatively simple: improve collaboration between the scientists that work in the energy sector.
“When I started in the industry, we used to call it throwing projects over the fence,” said Mark Northam, director of the School of Energy Resources. “Geologists would start with it, do the best job they could and then throw it over the fence to the engineer. The engineer would get a geologic model and go ‘wow, that’s a great geologic model but I can simulate that. That’s too complex.’”
And then the pair would begin arguing.
The idea is to get chemists, geologists, petroleum engineers, physicists and computational scientists – to name a few – speaking the same language, Alvarado said. Something is lost in translation when, say, an engineer is trying to describe a problem to a chemist. The two understand a different problem and thus work towards different solutions.
“It’s not so much about being a generalist as about being multilingual person able to communicate with specialists,” Alvarado said.
The Improved Oil and Gas Recovery program comprises four faculty members from the chemisty, geology, chemical engineering and chemical and petroleum engineering departments. Such an approach is becoming increasingly common in industry, as teams of scientists approach challenges on a project or programmatic basis.
Things get more complicated when it comes to the actual science that might boost production levels. Alvarado likes to talk about “challenging the paradigm” of oil and gas production. What does that mean exactly? Traditionally, as oil fields mature operators turn to what are essentially cleaning solutions to glean oil stuck to the rock. But instead of cleaning oil from the rock, Alvarado and his team are focusing on how to improve oil mobility. Basically, they want to improve oil flow so more of it flows out of the reservoir. Doing that requires fine-tuning of the chemical concoction injected into the reservoir, he said.
Yet that is only half of Alvarado’s attempt to shake up the paradigm. The other half relies on when that chemical concoction is injected in the reservoir. Instead of waiting to inject the chemical until later in the field’s operating life, as is often the case now, the chemical should be injected at the beginning, he said.
Shale gas offers a template for improving shale oil production, Alvarado said. Gas production is relatively simple compared to oil production, but often times the reservoir are similar, mean similar production methods can be used in both.
“We learned to do the extended horizontal wells from shale gas. We just borrowed that technology to do shale oil,” Alvarado said. “The massive number of fracking stages in shale gas, we just transferred that to shale oil.”
Using shale gas production as a model can help focus oil research and keep research costs down. In the 1980s, many laboratory experiments tried in the field failed. That was costly, Alvarado said. Using methods used in shale gas production increases the likelihood shale oil research will be successful.
And that increases the chances that more oil and gas will come out of the ground.
“There are two ways in industry to bring more resources to the surface,” Alvarado said. “You discover new ones, or you access the known ones. This makes more of the known ones.”