A gossamer-thin glass line threaded two miles underground is allowing oilfield engineers to listen to a new kind of music: the sounds of fracking.
Halliburton Co. (HAL) and competing providers of drilling gear are adapting acoustic spy technology used by U.S. submarines to record sounds made deep in the earth that can guide engineers in finishing a well and predicting how much oil will flow.
The ability to hear inside a well enables producers to fine-tune hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, the process that blasts underground rock with water, sand and chemicals to free trapped oil and natural gas. The technology is targeted at an estimated $31 billion that will be spent this year on fracking stages that yield less-than-optimal results, a majority of the work at 26,100 U.S. wells set to be pressure-pumped in 2013, according to PacWest Consulting Partners LLC.
"We're creating a new science," said Magnus McEwen-King, managing director for OptaSense, a Qinetiq Group Plc (QQ/)unit that's one of the fiber-optics pioneers for the energy industry. "From an acoustic perspective, this is very much the start of what I think is going to be a revolutionary technology."
Halliburton, the world's largest provider of fracking services, is working on cataloging the combination of sounds that signal the perfect frack: an explosion, cracking rock, and eventually the gurgle of hydrocarbons seeping into the well bore, said Glenn McColpin, director of reservoir monitoring at Halliburton's Houston-based Pinnacle unit. A bad frack means the rock didn't crack as much as it could have.
When perfected, a computer will convert the sounds to a graph that will show how deeply and thoroughly cracks penetrate the rock surrounding the well, indicating the success of each frack stage. The longer and more numerous the cracks, the more oil and gas will flow.
Contractors ranging from Halliburton to Exiius LLC have begun permanently installing fiber optic lines in U.S. wells. During completion of a just-drilled well, the fiber can listen for subtle noises that suggest sealing the well with cement didn't work properly.
Then the fiber can listen for good and bad fracking stages, and finally it'll be able to confirm if oil and gas is flowing. Eventually they'll be able to actually measure production flow based on sounds, McColpin said. He compares it to a flute: as different holes in the well's casing are open or clogged, the sound pitch of fluids flowing through the well are affected.
Programmers also are working on algorithms to detect the difference in sound for water versus oil flowing into the well from surrounding rock. Then valves for different areas in the well bore could be opened or closed as needed to minimize water incursion, which is a waste.
David Fuller's view The entrepreneurial USA is racing ahead with these technologies. Note this year's 26,100 wells mentioned in the third paragraph above, which will be made more productive and also safer in terms of reducing possible leaks, as you will see from the three paragraphs immediately above.
The national benefits of competitive energy prices, achieved with technological advances, are enormous for a highly developed country as Fullermoney has often discussed. They permeate throughout the entire economy, lowering costs and inspiring other entrepreneurial achievements. They also attract inward investments and highly skilled job applicants.
How are other countries doing with their energy policies?