Oil firms invest millions in new ways of looking deeper into the earth

A global industry consortium gives scientists at Imperial College London $4 million more to locate oil with much better precision.

Professor Mike Warner, Imperial College London

Mike Warner has been working on seismic imaging for 20 years. The oil industry started sponsoring his research around ten years ago – but cautiously, to see where it might lead. Now they’re hooked.

This week it was announced that a consortium of 15 global operators and oilfield service companies had committed another $3.8 million (£2.5 million) to fund the research, led by Warner, on full wave-form inversion (FWI), a method of seismic depth imaging that promises to penetrate the difficult layers of the earth’s crust and remove much of the guesswork that remains in drilling.

That commitment brings the total given to Warner’s research over the past nine years to around $11.3 million.

“Initially there was some scepticism. There were only five or six companies,” said Warner, a professor at Imperial College London’s Department of Earth Science & Engineering. “I think no one really believed it was entirely possible but within about three years it clearly was possible and a whole lot more piled in, which is usually the way.”

He believes the research is transforming seismic imaging.

Use the full physics

FWI has been around for some time, but Warner told Upstream Intelligence that the next stage of the research is to make FWI more robust, to make more accurate and higher-resolution models and images of the earth’s sub-surface.

“To image the earth conventionally you need three things: a data-set, a velocity model in the subsurface, and a migration algorithm – a computer code that can use the data and the model to make an image,” he said.

“We are not playing with the algorithm or the data, we are developing much better ways to make those models, so that when you use them the image is much sharper and more accurate.

“Now, the migration algorithms use the full physics of wave propagation, but the methods that people have been using to make the models do not use the correct physics, so the models have lagged behind the way we do imaging. We are basically now using methods of the same quality and accuracy to build the models as everyone is using to do the imaging.”

He added: “Our role was originally to develop that technique and get it out into the industry. Our role now is to improve its robustness, its applicability, its accuracy.

“Originally, this was brand new and we were the academic group that first brought this to the industry in 3D, but that’s no longer what we’re doing. That’s behind us, already done, basically.”

Keeping it real

Fifteen people at Imperial are now working on this full time – students, post-doctoral researchers and academic staff.

FWI is used commercially already. Big service companies offer it and big oil companies use it. The goal of the next phase of the research project – called Fullwave Game Changer and facilitated by the Industry Technology Facilitator – is to get deeper visibility.

“We’re fairly limited in how deep we can look with this technique now, so we’d like to look deeper and apply it to a wider range of data-sets,” Warner said.

The companies are helping. They provide the data-sets, the rationale, and strategic direction. “They don’t tell me how how to solve the problems but they do tell me which are the pertinent problems and they make sure the research is relevant to the real world,” Warner said.

Every barrel of oil

It appears to be working. Warner said that companies have already pinpointed significant capital savings on field appraisal projects. And the fact that they want to fund more research, to him, is vindication of the strides already made. He believes the industry’s subsurface imaging capability will be transformed.

“The general approach of applying full wave-form inversion over the next decade or so will influence every well that’s drilled, every prospect that’s developed, probably every barrel of oil and every cubic metre of gas that is produced,” he said. “It’s beginning to do that, but it’s spreading very rapidly across the industry.”

“The point is not more hydrocarbons, directly, but to reduce risk,” he added. “It should enable us to place wells more intelligently, to drill fewer wells to get the same level of recovery. In some instances it will increase the total amount of petroleum we’re able to produce from a single reservoir but, principally, it’s about drilling in exactly the right place.”

First bite at the cherry

Clearly, oil companies will welcome the chance to drill more accurately, but they will have to let the ones who are footing the bill for the research have the first bite of the technology cherry.

“For a period of time the 15 companies will have privileged rights to what we generate, and of course they need that or they wouldn’t fund the project,” Warner said. But he added that, in time, the knowledge would disseminate across the industry.

“It’s an ongoing development. This will supplant the conventional approach to velocity model building, and it will supplant the conventional way of processing and imaging data. That’s probably a ten-to-15-year journey, and I’m not saying this project will do that on its own, it’s a whole-industry journey.”