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].
Oil gets a bad rap these days, but the stuff is actually quite incredible.
Many people think of crude oil as a thick, black liquid that is used to source our unquenchable thirst for gasoline. However, the reality is that each barrel of oil is refined to be used in a variety of applications that includes fuel, cosmetics, plastics, rubber, and candle wax.
Today’s infographic comes from JWN Energy, an oil and gas news site. Using Chevron as a source, it shows 17 different things that can be made from each barrel of oil.
Here is everything that can be made from just one barrel of oil:
- Enough gasoline to drive a medium-sized car over 450km (280 miles).
- Enough distillate fuel to drive a large truck for almost 65km (40 miles). If jet fuel fraction is included, that same truck can run nearly 80km (50 miles).
- Nearly 70 kWh of electricity at a power plant generated by residual fuel.
- About 1.8 kg (4 lbs) of charcoal briquettes.
- Enough propane to fill 12 small (14.1 ounce) cylinders for home, camping or workshop use.
- Asphalt to make about 3.8 L (one gallon) of tar for patching roofs or streets.
- Lubricants to make about a 0.95 L (one quart) of motor oil.
- Wax for 170 birthday candles or 27 wax crayons.
But that’s not all. After producing all of the above products, there’s also enough petrochemicals leftover to be used as a base for one of the following:
- 39 polyester shirts
- 750 pocket combs
- 540 toothbrushes
- 65 plastic dustpans
- 23 hula hoops
- 65 plastic drinking cups
- 195 one-cup measuring cups
- 11 plastic telephone housings
- 135 four-inch rubber balls
Oil is not a one-trick pony, and the gooey black liquid actually has thousands of applications. The above serves as one example of how a barrel could be used, but here’s a list of many other oil applications. It includes everything from guitar strings to antihistamines.
Whatever your opinion is of fossil fuels, it’s still pretty astonishing what can be produced out of each barrel of oil.
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.
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.
About 360 students in Kuwait did recently, thanks to the Energy4me workshop they attended during the Kuwait Oil & Gas Show.
Walking into the Ahmad Al Jaber Exhibition Center, these students along with 60 teachers were thrilled to see one of the world’s largest curved screens, which gives visitors a glimpse of the industry in Kuwait. The building was designed to look and have the shape of the shell of an extinct marine animal called the ammonite, which lived some 120 million years ago and is thought by scientists to have contributed to the formation of today’s oil reserves.
The Energy4me team took participants on a journey of exploration and production. In the fun and educational workshops, teachers and students learned how humans first discovered oil as they worked through the “natural oil seep” experiment. Next, they investigated seismic technology to see what is beneath the surface; to do that test, the groups used the “sound wave” experiment with Slinkys and Styrofoam cups.
These hands-on activities do so much to help us understand the basic scientific concepts that are dealt with within the industry, but more than that, they help give us an understanding on how to engage with students in the classroom in a fun and easy way,” said one science teacher from the Canadian Bilingual School.
Teachers and students then learned about the value of a core sample in understanding the concepts of pressure, porosity, permeability and density in helping scientists make a decision about where to produce energy. The resources offered by the Energy4me program are designed to help make these concepts more accessible to the public to increase awareness and understanding.
The journey ended with the “perforated well casing” activity, which teaches the concept that perforations help us extract more oil and natural gas, and the “getting the oil out” activity, which always sparks a fierce but friendly team competition to see who can get the oil out of the ground. Only, in this experiment, chocolate syrup and cola take the place of oil (one being more viscous than the other).
The workshops show teachers the value of using hands-on activities to encourage students to pursue STEM-related subjects in school and at university. The aim for the students was to highlight some of the exciting aspects of being an engineer and to help give them a better idea of what to expect should they choose to pursue an engineering career.
All of our experiments are freely downloadable via the Energy4me website and the materials that are needed were designed to be easily accessible in any part of the world so that anyone would be able to use our resources to help educate the public.
The Texas A&M Society of Petroleum Engineers (SPE) student chapter expanded its Outreach program in 2016-2017 to promote careers in STEM and encourage creative thinking. The initiative reached 500+ K-12 students in the local community, engaging them through visits to elementary/high schools and energy education fairs. Each presentation involved a demonstration that illustrated a petroleum or energy-related concept. One extremely popular demo involved using chocolate pudding, marshmallows, and sprinkles to describe drilling mud! Today, the organization continues to find new ways to spark interest in energy. Plans include a 3D-printed (working) pumping unit, as well as a porosity-permeability demo.
Aberdeen, we have an astronaut!
That wasn’t exactly the introduction as retired NASA astronaut Rick Hieb visited the Scottish city recently to educate local teachers on science and space exploration. But, it was accurate!
Hieb was joined by NASA space scientist Sue Lederer and Hyang Lloyd, president and co-founder of the Scottish Space School Foundation USA. The trio visited Aberdeen as part of the NASA in Aberdeen 2017 project, participating in a range of scientific events catering to students from primary and secondary schools plus families visiting Aberdeen Science Centre.
This initiative was jointly organized by the Society of Petroleum Engineers, the Energy Institute and Society of Underwater Technology.
The NASA in Aberdeen project seeks to inspire the next generation of engineers, said SPE member and Energy4me advocate Colin Black, who also serves as chairman of the NASA in Aberdeen project.
“We seek to show the link between the technology and processes used in space travel and how these translate to the energy industry,” Black said. “A large part of this is providing continued professional development for teachers to continue this learning, encouraging pupils to consider a career in the energy sector as a result.”
The program offered educational lessons to teachers on topics such as staying safe in space and returning to Earth. The teachers said that not only were the resources to be useful and enjoyable but that they also plan to use what they’ve learned in their classrooms, teach their students even more about space travel and its relation to other industries.
“NASA in Aberdeen is an excellent collaboration bringing oil and gas industry bodies together with STEM education organizations to inspire the next generation through demonstrating the exciting possibilities solving the challenges we face both in space as well as here on Earth,” said Stuart Farmer, chair of the educational committee for the NASA in Aberdeen 2017 project. “In addition to the recent visit of NASA staff, the subsequent series of professional development workshops for secondary science teachers ensures the project provides ongoing support for teachers.”