Energy

Bacteria lead the way to more efficient oil production

Photo: Biota / Biota

Biota, a California startup, is developing a means of improving oil and gas operations by analyzing the bacteria that emerge from the wellhead. Photo: Biota

In the rocky depths of the nation’s shale oil fields, thousands of feet below the production frenzy, primordial bacteria subsist on the very hydrocarbons that make up oil and gas and have transformed the U.S. into an energy powerhouse rivaling Saudi Arabia and Russia.

The microbes are among the least-studied life forms on earth, emerging to the surface as anonymous organisms thought to have evolved within the harsh extremes of the subsurface over hundreds of millions of years. Oil and gas producers for decades paid them limited attention — until a cutting-edge startup recognized their potential to help produce oil and gas even more efficiently.

Now, as industry competition intensifies, a growing number of producers have partnered with Biota, a startup developing the means of achieving that goal by analyzing the bacteria that emerge from the wellhead. More than 20 producers in the Permian Basin and elsewhere have shipped rock and fluid samples to the company’s San Diego lab, intrigued by the promise of data that could help them drill more precisely, lower production costs and boost profits.

Think of it as biotechnology meets petroleum engineering. Unique microbial colonies reside within the various layers, cracks and faults in any given oil basin, making it possible to discern the boundaries of deep underground formations by analyzing the DNA of the bacteria within them. In the Permian, for example, bacteria in two overlapping layers — the Bone Spring and the Wolfcamp — are biologically distinct, providing markers that could determine whether a well is drawing from one source or the other during the course of operations.

That’s critical information for drillers trying to make the best use of each well. Right now, if a company drills two wells, one targeting the Bone Spring, the other the Wolfcamp, it is challenged to know for sure if those wells are drawing from their intended targets. Both wells could be sucking oil from, say, the Bone Spring, depleting that source more quickly while missing out on the crude from the Wolfcamp.

Biota CEO Ajay Kshatriya, a chemical engineer who grew up in Katy and spent much of his career in California’s biotech industry, compares oilfield acreage to a six-pack of soda, each can a distinct formation or reservoir. The producer aims to place one straw in each can, but sometimes, two straws wind up in the same can, doubling the company’s cost to produce what could have been done with one. And there’s the chance that some cans will remain unopened, leaving profits underground.

“By understanding the boundaries of those cans,” Kshatriya said, “you know where to put the wells.”

For all of their advanced technology — seismic imaging, computer models and production monitors — energy companies still can’t be certain where oil and gas is coming from once the shale rock is shattered through hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. It’s like throwing a rock at a window; even with perfect planning and aim, the cracks will zig-zag unpredictably in any direction. It becomes even more unpredictable thousands of feet below ground.

That’s where the bacteria, among the earth’s oldest organisms, come in. Over the eons, the bacteria adapted to particular conditions underground, diversifying genetically into different strains depending on heat, pressure and other conditions in the mishmash of prehistoric sediment overlapping in different formations. In other words, the strains of bacteria in the Wolfcamp have a different genetic makeups than those in the Bone Spring.

Biota, which has offices in California and Houston, uses DNA sequencing, computer algorithms and a proprietary database to identify the strains of bacteria that come up through oil and gas wells and maps those microbes to their respective formations based on where the samples were taken. Drawing on more than 20,000 samples from some 500 wells in the Permian and nine other basins, Biota has analyzed more than 400 million DNA sequences from the nation’s most prolific production areas, and recently began working with offshore customers in the Gulf of Mexico and Asia.

As the map becomes more extensive and detailed, oil and gas companies would be able to confirm the source of crude — and adjust operations as needed — with information about the bacteria produced from the well. It’s another tool for an industry than can no longer count on $100 a barrel oil to cover cost overruns, especially as investors increase pressure to keep a lid on costs and boost profits.

Marathon Oil and EP Energy of Houston and Anadarko Petroleum of The Woodlands have signed on with Biota, as have Norway’s Equinor and Australia’s BHP Billiton, among others. Recently, Midland’s Concho Resources, Pennsylvania’s EQT Resources and Malaysia’s Petronas joined the customer roster.

John Gibson, chairman of energy technology at Houston energy investment bank Tudor Pickering Holt & Co., has worked for the past year to connect Biota with the bank’s oil and gas clients, extolling the insights expected to come when the company has analyzed enough bacterial DNA to map wide production areas. The bank has not invested in Biota.

“The more we know about the bacteria, the more we know about the reservoir,” Gibson said. “There is enormous potential here.”

For oil and gas companies, the data has the potential to show far more than how a single well performs once it’s fracked. Data from multiple wells could determine how they interact and help producers find the optimal number of wells to develop a reservoir. And it could enable them to monitor production over time — a well that starts off siphoning oil from the Wolfcamp, for example, could, at some point, begin to draw from a different formation.

Anadarko was one of the first companies to conduct a large-scale pilot program with Biota last January, starting with a study of 33 wells in the Delaware region of the Permian. It has since expanded the study to include more than 100 wells there in pursuit of a broader data set that could help it enhance its drilling models and more quickly determine the most efficient means of achieving production targets.

Blunt, K. (2018). Bacteria lead the way to more efficient oil production. [online] HoustonChronicle.com. Available at: https://www.houstonchronicle.com/business/energy/article/Bacteria-leads-the-way-to-more-efficient-oil-13178180.php [Accessed 6 Sep. 2018].

Working in petroleum: it’s a sweet job

Who knew that heavy crude oil could be delicious?

Secondary students at the Bayflower International School in Benin City, Nigeria, were treated to some fun and educational experiments recently through SPE’s Energy4me program. The 30 students had a taste of the types of work that petroleum engineers do in the exploration and production of oil and natural gas.

Students experiment on extracting oil in this experiment.

Through the Energy4me presentation, students learned the importance of pursuing STEM-related school subjects and career paths. SPE member Akwiwu Ugochi, projects officer for Nigerian Petroleum Development Co., led the presentation, which included an activity called Getting the Oil Out. This simple experiment explains how artificial lift extracts light and heavy crude.

Of course, Energy4me does not recommend tasting crude oil! In our experiment, light crude is represented by soda while chocolate syrup stands in for heavy crude. Hence, its tastiness! “Heavy crude tastes delicious, but is a lot of work to extract,” one student told Ugochi. She also had the students perform the Sedimentation Bottle experiment, which illustrates in a very simplistic way why the different layers of sub-surface materials formed the way that they did.

I enjoyed taking the class, and the students’ energy was quite infectious,” Ugochi said. “I also was able to talk about oil spillage, environmental implication and clean-up during the Getting the Oil Out activity when we had an issue of a ‘pipe’ rupture with one of the straw tubes.”

Akwiwu Ugochi hands out materials for an experiment.

Having industry professionals come into the classroom and interact with students via Energy4me highlights the importance of making the right decisions during early stages of an engineering project. Students not only learn about the industry through the Energy4me hands-on activities, but also hear about the lives of the engineers through a career talk and question and answer session.

Energy4me is not a boring lecture, and combining the hands-on activities with a discussion about life in the industry helps students put a face to the industry and understand what is required to be successful.

The Energy4me excitement is evident in the students’ reactions. They said the presentation was “very enlightening and educational.” As an SPE member giving an Energy4me presentation, you know you are successful when a student asks “if the engineers can come back again.”

Or course, teachers love Energy4me also. Program resources are available free to the teachers, allowing them to further educate their students in a fun and dynamic way. The teacher asked Ugochi if she could conduct similar sessions with the students during regular class time. Absolutely – Energy4me provides instructions for many hands-on activities for all grade levels.

Shaking up a bottle to learn how sediment forms under the earth’s crust.

“As I left the classroom that day, the teacher said the presentation was fun, and it made the students interested in science,” Ugochi said. “I look forward to doing more Energy4me presentations and encouraging my section members to do likewise.”

Want to volunteer in your community? Contact energyed@spe.org for more information.

Fracturing with gelatin

Making gelatin is fun, and it certainly is delicious. But fracturing gelatin from the inside is a cracking good time.

Hydraulic fracturing was one of the experiments conducted by the SPE Calgary Section during a recent school visit. About 60 students participated in a range of Energy4me activities where they learned concepts such as porosity and perforated well casings in addition to hydraulic fracturing.

Dispelling many of the myths about this form of hydrocarbon production, SPE members explained to students about the technical aspects that are involved in the process, and why it is one of the most regulated and safest forms of hydrocarbon production. The Society of Petroleum Engineers provides good information on hydraulic fracturing on the Energy4me website.

Through Energy4me’s hands-on activities, the students also saw first-hand the results of core sampling on different sub-surface terrains. The SPE members offered instruction on why it is important to use science when investigating what is beneath the surface during hydrocarbon exploration.

From porosity to perforated well casing, students left with a better understanding of the various steps that go into exploration and production.

Globally, Energy4me excites students about the oil and gas industry. Through its award-winning program, Energy4me teaches students that engineers are investigators and problem solvers, often leading to new technologies and innovations for the world’s energy needs.

 

Sometimes, the right equipment is a spoon

It pays to have the right tool.

That’s the lesson high school students in San Antonio, Texas, learned during an Energy4me workshop. Nearly 100 students competed in the hands-on activity, which challenges them to produce and refine the most amount of oil in the quickest time with the least (or no) amount of spillage or other complications.

Just like real life!

During the activity, students can purchase or exchange various tools that represent advancing technologies in oil and gas exploration. In one game, they learn about exploration, project management and negotiating.

“I loved the peak oil game because it taught me the importance of having the right equipment and right team when doing a task,” one student said.

The Society of Petroleum Engineers conducts Energy4me workshops and presentations all over the world. Through extensive use of hands-on activities, this innovating program, working in conjunction with the NEED project, encourages students to study engineering. In particular, the peak oil game teaches students the value of exploring for and producing hydrocarbons.

Studies prove that hands-on activities create connections between the classroom and real-world situations. This style of teaching also nurtures critical thinking and problem-solving skills, which are traits that many employers value.

“The Energy4me workshops not only are a lot of fun for the students, but they also are incredibly educational,” said Mary Spruill, NEED executive director. “Because we use hands-on activities, students do not passively listen to a lecture; they must think through a problem or situation. They learn that they can interpret data, which is a fundamental skill for engineers.”

After completing the activity portion of the workshop, students were then treated to a tour of the exhibition floor where they see all of the technology they just learned. The tour is a true highlight of the workshop and the only way that students can access an SPE exhibit floor.

At the same time, the students were learning about oil and gas, 20 science teachers took part in a separate workshop. Energy4me believes that if we educate a teacher, we educate generations of aspiring engineers.

A 5th grade science teacher said, “I now see the importance of combining hands-on experiments with theory to help increase students understanding.”

Teachers receive a free digital version of the Energy4me teacher kit, which includes many resources that they can take back to the classroom. Teachers also get an exhibition tour.

 

 

SPE Colombia Teaches Energy4me to 600 Students

 In July, 32 SPE members volunteered to teach the Energy4me program to nearly 600 6th and 7th grade students at the San Jose de Orito School and Jorge Eliecer Gaitan School in Orito, Colombia. The three-day event was a big hit among students and teachers. “With students, it is always important to do a hands-on activity since they are very curious,” said Jenny Bravo, teacher at San Jose de Orito School. “The activity is a motivation for their classes; many of them want to be engineers. When the students work with the volunteers, they have an incentive to continue their studies in university. I notice you were able to motivate them.”

The FAQ on E&P: Chatting with Middle School Students about Oil and Gas

SPE Gulf Coast section member Vikrant Lakhanpal recently visited Olle Middle School in Houston, Texas.

Fueling young minds, that’s why Vikrant Lakhanpal recently visited Olle Middle School in Houston, Texas.

Lakhanpal, a production engineer at Proline Energy Resources, spoke with the students about the whole life cycle of energy production from oil and gas – geological exploration, drilling, production, transportation and refining.

“I got a chance to interact with the students and understand their perspective about the E&P industry,” he said. “It was interesting to understand what the young minds think about petroleum engineering as a career.”

A member of the Gulf Coast section, Lakhanpal based his presentation on the future energy outlook, increasing dependency on renewable energy and how the world will still depend on oil and gas 30 years from now. Lakhanpal said that even though a lot of research is happening in the renewable sector, it is not possible to become completely fossil fuel independent.

He also emphasized that oil production is a multi-disciplinary science, and the first principles of science are applied at each stage.

“I sometimes hear students ask why a certain subject is being taught to them,” Lakhanpal said. “They think it won’t be of any use in the future. That’s exactly why I wanted to give them the technical details of how things actually work. I wanted them to realize that petroleum engineering is not something out of the world; it is based on the principles of physics used to extract oil from ground.”

Lakhanpal created a trivia quiz game. He said he was concerned that the students had not been interested in the topic he presented. Had they paid attention? Would they be able to answer the questions? Happily, he received an over-whelming response.

“They asked questions about which courses to take, whether to go for an associate degree or a master’s degree,” Lakhanpal said. “I am glad I could make a difference and motivate them to take up STEM education. I am thankful to SPE for giving me this opportunity of making an impact in someone’s life. I will definitely make myself available again for such opportunities in future.”

 

STEM Day at Elmore Elementary in Houston, Texas

SPE member Randi Steele represented SPE’s Energy4me program and the Houston Museum of Natural Science at Elmore Elementary’s second annual STEM Day on Jan. 26. The program was organized by Crystal Williams, fourth grade STEM, computer science and robotics educator.

Williams instituted STEM Day as a way to motivate the students to think big about their futures and get them to focus on going to college. The day consisted of science presentations, robotics labs, a math competition and six science workshops.

Steele presented a basic discussion of fossil fuels and drilling for oil using materials from the Houston Museum of Natural Science where she is a master docent in the Weiss Energy Hall. Steele presented twice to large groups of about 30 fifth graders. They were very attentive and asked great questions.

“They loved learning about the rocks – especially the coal, halite, and sulfur samples,” Steele said. “Another highlight was showing the perforating gun and discussing the chemical explosive involved. This was a very worthwhile experience, and I look forward to doing it again!”

 

 

 

SPE Aberdeen invests $247,000 to support STEM education

Because of skills gap in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) subjects in the UK, the Society of Petroleum Engineers’ (SPE) Aberdeen Section has reported investing almost $250,000 (£200,000) over five years to support initiatives designed around these subjects.

SPE Aberdeen’s Schools and Careers Guidance Committee plays a significant role in encouraging young people to study STEM subjects, which are fundamental to the energy industry’s future workforce. Activities such as workshops at the Techfest Festival of Science, which take place in Aberdeen, are supported by profits from SPE Aberdeen events and offer thousands of children the opportunity to get a hands-on introduction to STEM subjects each year.

Another important enterprise that SPE has supported over the years is Inside Industry, the only tool of its kind focused on providing first-class, industry-driven career information and advice. The career guidance website, which is targeted specifically toward the energy industry, has been rolled out across 300 schools in Scotland.

Since 2011, SPE Aberdeen has invested $98,000 (almost £80,000) in scholarships to support students studying oil and gas related qualifications to relieve the financial stresses faced by students and allow them to focus on their studies.

“Inspiring the next generation has always been, and continues to be, at the heart of SPE Aberdeen,” said Ian Phillips, Chairman of SPE Aberdeen. “We are committed to encouraging and supporting the industry’s next generation of talent by providing opportunities that otherwise would not be available. The oil and gas industry has a long future ahead, and it is essential that we do all we can to equip the future workforce with skills they need to drive it forward.”

All of SPE Aberdeen’s initiatives are funded by profit generated from its annual program of events, such as the Offshore Achievement Awards, its monthly technical presentations and networking meetings, and topical conferences including DEVEX, the SPE ICoTA Well Intervention Conference and the SPE European Well Abandonment Seminar.

As well as key initiatives such as Techfest, Inside Industry and student scholarships, other events and workshops which benefit from these profits include CV workshops and industry exhibition tours for pupils and teachers, creating vital links between schools and industry.

In addition to the financial support given by SPE Aberdeen, the volunteers in each committee give their time and expertise to develop and deliver workshops, events and share their passion and enthusiasm for STEM and the industry.

“The events we run not only encourage knowledge sharing and professional development, but also play a direct link in supporting the talent of tomorrow,” Phillips said. “One such example is the Offshore Achievement Awards. As well as celebrating success and innovation across the industry, the awards also provide the wherewithal to attract the next generation of workers.

“It’s particularly important in this current market climate that we work even harder to encourage the next generation to pursue interests in the industry, and reinvesting back into key events and initiatives through the offshore awards is a fantastic way to do so.”

The Offshore Achievement Awards will take place at the Aberdeen Exhibition and Conference Centre on Thursday, 23 March, 2017. For more information please visit: http://www.spe-oaa.org/

 

 

Engineering meets arts and crafts – Dallas staff Energy4me workshop

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Core Sampling

In the field, core samples consist of sediment or rock. But in an Energy4me workshop, core samples are made up of bright pink and purple sand.

About 30 Society of Petroleum Engineers staff participated in an Energy4me workshop in Dallas. During the workshop, participants conducted four experiments that focused on various parts of oil exploration and production. In the core sample exercise, employees filled small plastic cups with three layers of colored sand. Then, using a drinking straw, they worked to pull out a core sample.

It’s a simplified version of the real experience, but it serves as a great example of core sampling.

“Allowing us the opportunity to complete hands-on activities really helped everyone visualize the types of things that petroleum engineers work on, and the types of engineering work that we talk about with our members,” said Debbie Anderson, Bookstore & Libraries Manager. “I would recommend the workshop to anyone that wants to learn more about petroleum engineering in general.”

Conducted across the globe, Energy4Me educates middle school and high school students about the energy industry. The program is designed to engage students at a young age to study math and science, thereby ensuring a future workforce. The program also educates teachers on using hands-on activities to illustrate technical aspects of engineering.

In the Dallas workshop, the other experiments were “getting the oil out,” “perforated well casings” and “fracturing with gelatin.”

For the “getting the oil out” experiment, participants taped together drinking straws to create the illusion of a well drilled deep underground for oil. The trick is to properly connect the pipe sections – pieces of straw – to suck the oil, or in this case, soft drink and chocolate syrup, to the surface.

Some staffers were immediately successful while others learned that drilling can be challenging.

Getting the Oil Out

“My favorite activity was definitely the activity with the straws, though each were interesting in a different way,” said Leah Looten, Membership Recruitment and Engagement Senior Administrator. “We improvised a bit and messed up others, so I’m not sure they were 100 percent successful, though they were 100 percent fun.”

By participating in an Energy4me workshop, several SPE staffers expressed an interest in conducting their own workshops.

“I would also recommend it to anyone who may want to conduct their own event,” Anderson said. “I’m a Cubmaster for a Cub Scout pack, and I would love to conduct my own E4M workshop with our Scouts. Thank you for the opportunity!”

Brett Fountain, Senior Web Integrator and Developer, likened the workshop to “engineering meets arts and crafts.” He said that the experience is a very enjoyable way to learn some basic concepts that he hopes to teach to his son’s class next year.

“It was simultaneously so fun and so educational that it made me wish my son could have been in on it,” he said. “Now I want to facilitate this kind of hands-on learning for him and his friends. If you are inquisitive and curious and not afraid to get your hands wet, you will have fun learning about this industry.

“This was the best lunch-and-learn ever — I basically forgot to eat.”