The oil and gas industry has, since its outset, pushed the boundaries of what human engineering could achieve. This long tradition of technological innovation continues to this day, with research and development into new E&P technologies forming a crucial part of any oil company’s business activities.

"Between 1996 and 2011, the average daily demand for oil rose from 72.6 million bpd to 89.9 million bpd."

With worldwide demand for hydrocarbons going up and proven reserves going down, the need for these new technologies is pressing. Between 1996 and 2011, the average daily demand for oil rose from 72.6 million barrels per day (bpd) to 89.9 million bpd, and this number is set to grow by a further 0.9% in 2012.

They may not receive as much media attention as the latest tablet or smartphone to hit store shelves, but developments made by the oil industry are every bit as significant. What differs is the time each new innovation takes to get from the drawing board to the finished product.

It is now commonplace for home electronics to be updated on a yearly basis; sometimes it is only a matter of months before the upgraded model is released. Within the oil and gas industry, however, an average of 15-22 years elapses between the idea and the product being put into commercial use, not to mention tens, if not hundreds of millions of dollars worth of investment, depending on the technology.

This is a long, drawn-out process, even when compared with other industries with notoriously long gestation periods for their products. Take the pharmaceutical industry; on average, its products take 7-11 years to become commercially available, half that of the oil and gas industry.

R&D funding

As a consequence of such long lead times, funding for R&D within the industry has remained robust, despite the vagaries of the price of oil on the international market. Tasked with R&D at Saudi Aramco, EXPEC ARC is active in a number of disciplines across the spectrum of upstream activities, notably the process of improving oil recovery during production.

"Most research related to ‘recovery’ falls under EXPEC ARC reservoir engineering technology," explains Abdulaziz Al-Kaabi, reservoir engineering technology chief technologist at EXPEC ARC. "Reserves are very closely connected to the oil recovery factor. This research is of significant importance to EXPEC ARC and to the company. Our research to increase recovery factor will ultimately add significant reserves to the company."

"Strong, consistent investment in Saudi Aramco’s upstream research is exactly what EXPEC ARC has become renowned for."

With Saudi Arabia already such a global powerhouse in terms of hydrocarbon reserves and production rates, this raises the question of what incentive there is for developing costly techniques that make reserves go further when they are so far from reaching maturity.

After all, Saudi Aramco boasts more than 260 billion barrels of recoverable reserves, the most in the world.

"It is imperative for any company with reservoirs – old or young – to exploit them in the most prudent fashion. It is also important for any company to work on maximising the ultimate oil recovery over the entire life of the field, and not the immediate oil recovery, which can actually damage fields," states Al-Kaabi. "Saudi Aramco strategically manages the reservoir development and production of its fields to achieve both the maximum recovery and the longest plateau of production over time. Investing in the most advanced and capable recovery technologies today, when the reservoirs are young, allows us to best manage the total production strategies of the reservoirs over decades to come, ultimately paying huge dividends. It is like investing in your retirement when you are young."

Strong, consistent investment in Saudi Aramco’s upstream research is exactly what EXPEC ARC has become renowned for through its many and varied technological breakthroughs. As well as enhancing oil recovery, research also focuses on enhanced reservoir monitoring and evaluation, both crucial to the understanding of fluid distribution in reservoirs and for targeting potential zones for additional recovery. Other upstream disciplines at EXPEC ARC focus on the geosciences, exploration technologies, reservoir simulation and modelling, production and drilling.

Smart technologies

The latest development has been the rise of so-called smart technologies that act intelligently to improve flow rates in the well. The latest of these is SmartWater Flooding, which involves tuning properties of the field injection water to alter the rock-fluid interaction at the pore scale, leading to more oil being mobilised.

"Waterflooding has for a long time been regarded as a secondary oil recovery method, explains Al-Kaabi. "Extensive research on crude oil, brine and rock systems has documented that the composition of the injected water can change wetting properties of the reservoir during a waterflood in a favourable way to improve oil recovery. Thus, injection of ‘smart water’ with the correct composition and salinity can act as a tertiary recovery method.

"The nanoparticles have been developed into the industry’s first passive agents, A-Dots."

"We are leading the research in SmartWater Flooding, especially its application in carbonates," he adds. "We’re conducting fundamental research to gain an understanding of SmartWater Flooding recovery mechanisms, conducting relevant research studies in the lab and implementing field tests, and plan to conduct field pilots very soon."

This work began at a time when most industry experts thought that the chemistry of water during flooding had little or no impact on recovery rates in carbonate reservoirs; as a result, a large amount of research was instead focused on sandstone-type reservoirs. Since EXPEC ARC presented its findings to the rest of the R&D community, other oil companies have also become wise to the positive impact this technology can have. But SmartWater Flooding is not the only smart technology currently under development at EXPEC ARC.

"Saudi Aramco is devoting significant resources to developing other smart materials," says Al-Kaabi. "We believe that functionalised nanoparticles can improve reservoir characterisation and monitoring as well as deployment of stimulation treatments in the reservoir."

Nanoparticles, or ‘Resbots’ as Saudi Aramco calls them, are tiny robots one thousandth the size of a human hair. They are injected into a well to assess the composition of a reservoir in terms of its pressure, temperature and fluid type.

"We are advancing the use of nanoparticles to measure pH, saturation and other reservoir properties," explains Al-Kaabi. "Our vision is as follows: we pump these particles into the reservoir, they make their measurements, and we capture them as the fluid flows from a well. The next step will be to develop and test particles that can do more than just measure. We would like to have particles that can modify reservoir rock and fluid attributes and that help us increase recovery from the reservoir."

So far, the nanoparticles have been developed into the industry’s first passive agents, A-Dots, which help cross-correlate injectors to producers in the field, but their use doesn’t end there.

"Another platform in the making is the contrast agent (nanomappers) to assist in delineating the waterflood front in the reservoir in conjunction with existing electromagnetic surveys," explains Al-Kaabi. "A third exciting nanoagent platform that we are adapting from the pharmaceutical industry is sustained release of surfactant particles for enhanced oil recovery deep into the reservoir. The research is transformational because our reservoir nanoagents are intended to go exactly where they need to go, do precisely what is needed, and collect the data that we specifically need."

Intellectual investment

Al-Kaabi believes that by sharing knowledge among the scientific community, further advances in recovery technologies are possible.

"EXPEC ARC is investigating long-term research goals that will ensure the future prosperity of Saudi Aramco."

"We work with universities mainly to address some very fundamental challenges and render the technology a step closer to being applied," he says. "For example, we’re developing a suitable surface chemistry that renders nanoparticles immune to adsorption to the rock surface, and to each other in high temperatures and hard, highly saline brine.

"We also collaborate with oilfield service companies to develop tools that best fit our operational needs. For example, tools that look ahead of the bit while drilling or see deeper into the reservoir to illuminate more precisely the long inter-well spacing in our fields."

EXPEC ARC is not just concentrating on these immediate concerns; it is also investigating long-term research goals that will ensure the future prosperity of Saudi Aramco.

"Blue sky research needs to be within a long-term roadmap, with clear milestones representing interim targets that on their own could be substantial technology developments," confirms Al-Kaabi. "Otherwise, looking over a shorter timeframe could retard the long-term possibilities of a technology; especially when considering how early decisions impact the eventual potential outcome."

These sage words reflect the long-term mindset needed for R&D projects. You may find consumers lining up along the high street to get their hands on the latest must-have gadget, but EXPEC ARC is already thinking about what gadgets it will be using in 20 years’ time.