Big data down the well

The next big leap forward in productivity in the unconventional oil and gas sector will come from new microseismic imaging tools; combining sophisticated fiber optics, state-of-the-art geophones and massive computing power.

It is said that big data and vast sensor networks, sometimes called the “internet of things,” will transform the way we live our lives on Earth. They could also transform our understanding of what goes on beneath the surface.

US$3m saved capital out of US$9m for the average well

US Seismic Systems Inc. (USSI) is one company using a new generation of sensors, and the vast amounts of data they generate, to try to de-risk oil and gas prospecting, making shale gas and tight oil reserves easier and cheaper to exploit.

John Moore, CEO of its parent Acorn Energy, believes USSI’s microseismic geophones promise to do for unconventional oil and gas production what the early 3-D models developed on desktop computers in the 1980s did for the conventional hydrocarbon sector.

Early computer models cut the ratio of dry to productive holes of conventional wells from seven foot to every one foot drilled, to one-to-one, and played a big part in increasing the percentage of recoverable reserves. “It took so much risk out of the oil and gas business,” says Moore.

“The unconventional oil industry today is in a similar position to the conventional sector pre-1980. Right now, 20% of fracturing stages produce 80% of the hydrocarbons. These guys are wildcatting, wasting much of their capital.”

Now, new 4-D seismic sensors, software and the ability to process vast amounts of real time data – thanks to cheap, rentable cloudbased supercomputing – promise another transformative change.

USSI’s fiber optic sensors are a key element of this combination, enabling its clients to see what’s happening in the subsurface in real time. “This technology is going to change seismic imaging from being an exploration tool to a production tool,” says Moore.

This is because microseismic monitoring can tell prospectors in much greater detail where to find sweet spots and how exactly to tap them. The new fiber optic sensors are far more sensitive,hardier and able to detect very low frequency signals where most of the valuable data comes from, says Moore.

This enables oil and gas drillers to monitor specific sections of the subsurface so they know which parts of a fracture are productive. “It offers scope for optimization; by listening in real time to fracture propagation you can tell them when to stop fracking, for example.”

Moore’s hunch is that these innovations could help the sector to take the average recovery rates on unconventional reserves from around 5% to 6% up to 20% to 30%. USSI claims the US$500,000 cost of using its system to map a square mile of earth and rock will result in a reduction of non-productive frac stages by 50%, saving US$3m in capital out of US$9m for the average well. “It enables you to place the laterals more strategically so you frac the right pay zones and you can surgically place your frac stages where it will get the best hydrocarbon flows.”

Geophysicists admit they know relatively little about the subsurface and its secrets will only be unlocked by generating more data. The new tools being developed by USSI and its competitors offer the keys to this knowledge.

They should help oil and gas prospectors to divine the geological quirks of shales in different regions of the world and unlock the reserves they contain, says Moore. “We are the missing link between unconventional hydrocarbon fields and big data. The first fiber networks in telecoms made data cheap to transmit and were the foundation for the internet revolution – we think this is a similar situation for oil and gas.”

The article was written by:

  • Andrew Stone

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