‘Smart’ cement could talk to oil companies

HOUSTON — The oil industry is embracing new, gee-whiz technology to strengthen pipes and gather data miles underground.

But one key substance in the industry’s toolbox — cement — has so far escaped much of  the technological revolution.

Honolulu-based R&D firm Oceanit Laboratories Inc. wants to change that. The firm, which exhibited this week at the Offshore Technology Conference, is working with four major oil companies and the Department of Energy to explore how its smart, multifunctional Nanite cement can be used to communicate information from deep inside wells.

The substance itself starts like conventional inanimate cement — but Oceanit is transforming it by mixing in super-small nano materials. The result is a cement that behaves more like a sensor, capable of transmitting and responding to mechanical, acoustic and magnetic signals.

“Now the material has a personality, and it can speak to you about what is going on in places you could never go,” said Oceanit CEO Pat Sullivan.

Because the company’s proprietary admixture can be dispersed into bulk cement during the mixing process it can then be used most anywhere — from roads and sidewalks to walls and wells. As a result, it has benefited from federal funding from the Energy, Defense and Transportation departments.

“We’ve taken a dumb material and made it into a really smart material,” said Vinod Veedu, the Houston-based director of strategic initiatives for Oceanit.

For oil and gas wells, the potential is enormous, possibly helping to resolve longstanding problem of confirming that cement is mixed, distributed and hardened correctly inside wells, where it is used to isolate oil- and gas-bearing zones.

For instance, at an oil well, a steel pipe surrounded by smart cement could tell workers the pressure on the cement and help identify problems with well integrity.

“It’s naturally equipped to sense what is going on,” Sullivan said.

The joint industry program underway now is expected to play out over several years, with pilot tests.