Fiber optic tech providing clearer downhole data

Drilling a profitable oil well is a speculative mixture of science and art, combining limited data with intuition and sheer chutzpah to guess at a well’s contents.

New fiber optic technology is removing some of that uncertainty, opening the door for well operators to have up-to-the-minute detailed data about such key metrics as proportions of oil and gas, temperature, pressure and possible presence of water. The new equipment can even transmit the gurgling sounds that a well produces.

“We want the laboratory down the hole, in situ, while we are drilling,” said Gregory Powers, vice president of technology for the oil field services giant Halliburton, who spoke to journalists Tuesday as the company highlighted its technology during an event at its Fiber Optic Center in Houston.

“At the end of the day, you want to know what is the material that is down there. What have I found? What have I just drilled through? And you want to know that with certainty.”

The technology relies on the use of fiber optics, hair-thin transmission lines made out of silica glass.

While fiber optics technology has been available for 30 years, it is only in the last 10 years that improvements in the composition of the glass and the design of the cable have made its use possible in the high-temperature and high-pressure conditions of a well, which could destroy other electronics.

Halliburton has used this advance to develop a range of measurement technologies that can connect to fiber optic cables and be placed directly into wells, even at temperatures of up to 500 degrees.

The resulting data can help operators identify problems, such as leaks or non-productive areas, and resolve problems immediately. They also can use the information to plan well locations more precisely, potentially saving millions of dollars.

Halliburton and its customers already are using its fiber optics measuring systems to make better decisions about where to locate wells and how to modify operations to make wells more productive.

Other technologies still in development include combining sound waves with fiber optics, and other systems that Powers said could radically change the way operators understand the behavior of a well by taking out much of the guesswork.

“We have earth modeling, which tells you where the sweet spot is, where the hydrocarbon is and where to go looking for it,” Powers said. “What we would really like to be able to do is to predict the behavior of the reservoir itself with respect to the treatments we are going to apply to it.”