March 2020

Drilling advances

Wacky today, plausible tomorrow
Jim Redden / Contributing Editor

A ruddy-faced technician in a white lab coat sits before a bank of monitors in a sanitized Star Wars-like compartment, sipping an espresso while observing pre-programmed laser beams melt 10,000 ft of horizontally laid rock. Upon “drilling” and perforating the well, the lasers are disengaged, and the compartment scoots over to the next digitally identified location and repeats the process.

Whimsical, perhaps, but given the rapid advances in artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning and the like, can even the most preposterous concepts be taken off the table immediately? As evidence, California’s Notre Dame de Namur University is breaking new ground this spring, with the first known employment of an AI android teaching assistant (dubbed Maria Bot) for a class in Ethics of Emerging Technology. As such, it’s not that hard a stretch to see a time when even today’s most advanced rotary drill bits, mud systems and other now-compulsory components and practices will be rendered quaint and rather passé.

To point, a sales manager for a manufacturer and service company told me late last year that within a decade or so, he envisioned much of the land drilling process being conducted by what he calls a “rig caretaker.” This one-person crew will drive up on location with the rig and push a button, whereupon the rig would unfold, line up on location, drill the well and skid over to the next well and ones after that. After which, the rig would fold back onto the truck and head off to the next multi-well pad. Undoubtedly, with the combination of automation and evolving technologies like laser drilling, the possibilities are innumerable.

Laser drilling. Though discussed little of late, the similarly grandiose use of high-powered lasers for oil and gas drilling has been floated about for several decades. In early 2001, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and the Gas Technology Institute (GTI) initiated a research effort that built off a study completed two years earlier to analyze the viability of constructing wells with lasers, which researchers said at the time could represent the most radical change since rotary drilling sidelined cable tool rigs.

They saw state-of-the-art lasers having the potential to not only penetrate rock up to 100 times faster than mechanical drilling, without having to run any bit trips, but also replace the conventional perforation technique. Lasers were even seen as having the capacity to melt rock in a manner that would create a ceramic sheath in the wellbore, thereby eliminating the need for casing. A laser system also could contain myriad downhole sensors, including visual imaging systems, that could communicate with the surface through fiber optic cabling.

Essentially, the principle of laser drilling has been described as the transfer of light energy from the surface through fiber optic cables to a series of lenses that would direct the laser light to the surface of the rock. Early on, among the primary drawbacks to wholesale adoption that were identified were high-power consumption, difficulties in drilling larger-diameter wellbores, and the interaction of lasers with drilling fluids.

In 2009, the DOE’s National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL) awarded Houston’s Foro Energy, which describes itself as engaged in “commercializing the application of high-power lasers for the oil, natural gas, geothermal, and mining industries,” one of its first Advanced Research Projects Agency energy (ARPA-E) grants.

The company said it has since developed field-deployable hardware that includes a portable drilling assembly with a 20-kW fiber laser and low-loss fiber-optic cable. The setup is said to deliver 1,070 nm of high-power light that fractures rock, which is evacuated with a low-power mechanical drill.

Four years ago, Foro Energy extended an earlier Technology Cooperation Agreement (TCA) with Brazil’s Petrobras for an additional two years, with the aim of developing a next-generation high-power laser drilling system. Foro Energy declined comment on the current status of the technology.

LIBS new focus. Ancillary to drilling, NETL is now directing attention to the ongoing refinement of laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy (LIBS) technology that it says can provide a fast, cost-effective and precise method for determining the elemental composition of organic-rich shales. With the Marcellus shale as a field lab, NETL says the results of twin characterization studies released last year delivered critical mineral composition and porosity assessments, which it says will help operators better pinpoint drilling targets to get more bang for increasingly elusive bucks.

The LIBS analytical technique works by focusing a high-intensity pulse of light on a core sample, which produces a spark of light in all directions, made up of atomic emissions from the different elements found in the sample. Afterwards, the light is analyzed with a spectrometer for elemental composition.

A key deliverable was the engineering of a miniaturized LIBS sensor capable of delivering characterization analysis in-situ. NETL says the field-deployable LIBS system is a step-change advancement over X-ray fluorescence and scanning electron microscopy-energy dispersive spectroscopy, as the sensor provides equally accurate results without the increased time and costs of sample preparation. In August, the same NETL research team said that it developed a complimentary lab-scale LIBS system that can take measurements under conditions representing the native environment of a specific sample.

In the meantime, perhaps someone could program a Marie Bot sibling to dull grade PDC bits.

About the Authors
Jim Redden
Contributing Editor
Jim Redden is a Houston-based consultant and a journalism graduate of Marshall University, has more than 40 years of experience as a writer, editor and corporate communicator, primarily on the upstream oil and gas industry.
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