Oil barons turn to hi-tech solutions

Oil barons turn to hi-tech solutions

Hunt for black gold shifts to nano-machines and smart pipes

Rising energy costs and uncertain reserves are prompting the oil industry to look to technology to increase output from existing fields and find new sources.

The industry is gearing up for higher prices and is trying out new technological methods to extract the maximum from each well.

Most fields yield only 35 per cent of their oil, but Saudi Aramco has raised that to 50 per cent using technological innovation and is aiming for 70 per cent by 2027.

"Renewable energy is being developed but the world will have to rely on traditional carbon-based sources of fuel for the next 20 years," said Dr Muhammad Saggat, manager of Saudi Aramco's Exploration and Petroleum Engineering Center.

"We want to expand output by 180 billion barrels in the next 20 years, and increase recovery from 50 to 70 per cent.

"These are not hopes, they are concrete targets. Technology will play a critical role in increasing recovery and discovery of new fields."

Dr Saggat's team is already experimenting with the use of nanotechnology robots in oil wells to measure the porosity of the oil-bearing rock which they are drilling.

The robots could be injected into a well, making their way through the rock to the next bore hole and mapping the field internally.

Trials have already been conducted with miniature chips that go with the oil flow rather than moving under their own steam. The research has determined that the robots cannot be larger than 500nm if they are to succeed.

Another technological innovation is remote directional drilling. Drill bits can now be steered and each rig sends real-time data to the oil company's headquarters where a team lays out a direction for the drill operator to send the bit.

This allows horizontal drilling through an oil field, which is more effective than just drilling vertically to reach the oil in a particular spot.

A third technique is the use of 'smart fluid'. Oil fields are often contaminated by water and Saudi Aramco is working on smart materials that can be injected into an oil field to absorb only the water, allowing for a freer flow of oil.