Future prospects

The energy industry’s search for new oil and gas reserves is a mission of rare significance to humanity, and a highly controversial one at that. Environmentalists fiercely oppose the continued use of fossil fuels, while economists predict that ‘peak oil’, the time when the maximum level of petroleum production is surpassed, will be a cataclysmic inflexion point for global society.

So a recent collaborative project between Hewlett-Packard and Dutch energy giant Shell to greatly improve the accuracy and cost-effectiveness of oil and gas prospecting is not without moral quandary. But in combining data integration at a colossal scale with recent breakthroughs in nanotechnology, it is – at least – something of a technological marvel.  

For Shell, current prospecting technology, which uses seismic scans to pinpoint oil and gas reservoirs, is just too inaccurate. “Oil and gas wells are very expensive, but often they can simply miss the reservoirs below,” explains Wim Walk, the company’s manager for novel geophysical technologies. “For a number of reasons, state of the art systems do not produce seismic data of a sufficient quality, especially for onshore drilling. Shell wants to gain a competitive advantage in onshore exploration activities, which is why we wanted a system which produces seismic images of much higher resolution.”

MEMS technology

Here is where HP came in. In November 2009, the company revealed that it had developed a sensor, known as a micro-electro-mechanical systems (MEMS) accelerometer, that was up to 1,000 times as sensitive as existing equivalents.

HP is something of an expert in MEMS technology, the components of which are measured in micrometers, as it can be found in today’s inkjet printers. “Once you can produce one MEMS device, you can produce many different kinds,” explains Jeff Wacker, an HP Fellow.

Shell and HP colloborated to produce a prospecting system based on this MEMS sensor, soon to go into production. Not only does the sensor deliver a significantly more accurate picture, it consumers considerably less power. This allows the individual sensor devices to be battery powered and therefore, when connected up wirelessly, much easier to deploy, as it removes the need to lay power and data cables joining the sensors.  

This reduces the cost of projects – “when you do a seismic survey in a desert environment, for example, you typically need a crew of several hundred people [to lay the cables]”, says Walk – and makes the overall system more resilient. “If you have a cable failure, you lose all the sensors on that cable,” explains Wacker. “But if you only lose one sensor, it’s a little like losing a pixel on the screen – you don’t see it.”

The increased resolution of sensors means more data, and the integration platform that supports the new system dwarfs the typical enterprise information infrastructure. “We are producing petabytes of data every day,” says Walk, “and these projects can last for months.”

The system will soon be rolled out across all of Shell’s global onshore prospecting operations, he explains, “from Arctic Russia and the mountains of Colombia to the jungle of Nigeria and the deserts of the Middle East”. Exploration in such challenging environments, he says, is made significantly easier by the new sensors’ mobile and lightweight nature.

And while Shell’s continued search for fossil fuels is opposed by environmentalists, the nano-scale sensor technology this new system is based upon could in time be turned to greener ends, HP claims, such as measuring the efficiency of power distribution networks, managing the energy consumption of buildings and even helping farmers optimise their use of water and fertiliser.

Pete Swabey

Pete Swabey

Pete was Editor of Information Age and head of technology research for Vitesse Media plc from 2005 to 2013, before moving on to be Senior Editor and then Editorial Director at The Economist Intelligence...

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