Chandra Rai, director of the Mewbourne School of Petroleum and Geological Engineering at the University of Oklahoma, remembers when everyone thought all the oil was gone.
All the wells as we knew them, he recalls, had dried up.
“About 10 to 15 years ago, we were saying we’re done,” Rai said.
Then came the shale revolution, and hydraulic fracturing — the process of breaking previously impermeable rocks to access vast swathes of oil and natural gas still buried underneath the Earth. To call it a game changer — both for the field and Oklahoma’s economy — would be an understatement.
“It has changed the whole global picture,” Rai said.
But to access this oil, the wells had to change because the reservoirs had changed. And it wasn’t just about horizontal drilling, either.
The Integrated Core Characterization Center at the Mewbourne College of Earth and Energy is at the forefront of those changes. There, researchers work on the most effective way to break through tough rocks and extract oil and gas with the least amount of effort and, subsequently, cost.
And undergraduates get to work in there, too.
“This is the envy of universities across the nation,” Rai said. “Shale is a different beast. So we started investing in new equipment.”
About six or seven years ago, the lab received an upgrade to keep up with the changing science to the tune of about $15 million. Machines would be needed to measure the tiny cracks in rocks needed for oil excavation, along with models, moulds, and devices that simulate the kind of pressure rocks experience deep inside the Earth.
“If you don’t understand the rocks properly, you can’t come up with the technology to extract the material,” Rai said.
The cracks, or fractures, that are formed in rocks now are about the smallest imaginable. Students and researchers in the ICCC are looking at rocks like never before.
“The scale has changed to nanometers,” Rai said. “These are smaller than the size of a bacteria.”
The goal is to “create the most effective fracture using the least amount of horsepower,” Rai said. This way, companies spend the least amount of resources possible to get the most oil and gas.
Because of this importance, industry giants and the Department of Energy provide the ICCC with grant funding. Rai said this can range from $2.5 million to $5 million in a year.
Another laboratory where this partnership exists is the Devon Nano Imaging Lab, which is just down the hall from the ICCC. Here, Dr. Mark Curtis takes an even closer looks at those tiny cracks in the rock that can make the biggest difference using the latest technology available.
“With more unconventional, and tighter reservoirs, the current state of technology was not sufficient,” he said.
The imaging lab is leading the work on artificial intelligence in this part of the oil and gas field. Basically, Curtis explained, the theory is that a pattern exists for how different kinds of rocks fracture.
Using a super-computer with terabytes of rock images, the hope is that it can start to identify this pattern and, essentially, tell petroleum engineers the best way to access the oil and gas underneath, saving time and avoiding any waste of resources.
“One of the things we’re spearheading is developing A.I. learning algorithms to process this data for us,” Curtis said. “There is no other lab out there that has seen as many images and that has the data to train a computer on how to read it.”
There’s more to see under the Earth, as well. Rai said that of the oil and gas available since the shale revolution began, only 10 percent of it has been accessed.
“We’re still leaving 90 percent of the hydrocarbon down below,” Rai said. “So yes, we still need to keep training students on how to produce those hydrocarbons.”
The progress made in the ICCC and nano imaging lab has expanded the amount of time fossil fuels will be available to humans. Rai said with the current state of the industry, he estimates another 75-80 years worth of oil and 300-400 years of natural gas available, at least.