Partnering for a Bold Vision

HP's senior strategist discusses the possibility of an energy future made secure by seismic technolo

Rich Duncombe, senior strategist at HP.
Rich Duncombe, senior strategist at HP.

HP and Shell have created a co-innovation program for seismic acquisition. The bold vision of the program is to disrupt the seismic market from a 30-year incremental improvement trend to a much steeper curve.

Despite ongoing efforts to increase the role of renewable resources, global oil consumption is expected to increase by two-thirds within the next 40 years. The challenge we all face is not that the oil is gone, but that the easy oil is gone.

For decades, energy explorers have been using seismic images to find oil and gas reserves. Sophisticated computer programs translate sound waves, shot into the earth’s subsurface to echo off underground rock formations, into pictures that can reveal hidden oil and gas reserves.

The quest for new reservoirs is taking explorers into more remote, often hostile environments such as the deserts of the Middle East, the frigid Arctic and the mountains of Colombia. Hydrocarbons are often buried deep underground, hidden under complex geological formations like salt layers or ice shields or located in small accumulations, all of which make them difficult to identify with conventional seismic systems.

A few years ago, Shell convened an internal conference to review new developments in nanotechnology. At the event, Stan Williams, a senior technology fellow for HP, presented a paper on the company’s digital MEMS accelerometer technology. Dirk Smit, Shell chief scientist of geophysics, recognized that this technology could have applications in the seismic field.

HP’s technology had all the hallmarks of a disruption in the making. It offered low power consumption, low-frequency, high bandwidth response and low noise, but it needed to be redesigned specifically for seismic applications. Smit had confidence that with further research and development, a truly revolutionary seismic sensor could be designed from HP’s core technology. Shell, which leads the industry in geophysics and seismic data acquisition and interpretation, approached HP, the world’s largest technology company, about forming a partnership to pursue this opportunity. The companies announced formation of a joint project aimed at developing a wireless, ultra-sensitive, million-channel sensor system that could be easily deployed.

Much like a photograph gets better with increasing pixel density and color depth, seismic imaging needs better resolution and fidelity. Better data must be gathered more quickly, frequently and at a reasonable cost – all capabilities that are beyond the reach of existing seismic imaging technology.

Gathering the data requires seismic acquisition systems that have significantly more channels, or data collection points, and are much more accurate than the systems currently used. The typical 20,000 channel system used today presents significant logistical issues; with 240,000 geophones along with heavy cables for routing power and signals, it weighs about 200,000kg requires 200-300 workers, multiple trucks and many months to deploy.

Now imagine taking that to the million-channel system required to gather the much larger data sets needed for dramatically improved images. It would require up to 10 times more equipment, exponentially increasing the logistical challenges of deploying existing geophone-based technology. The sheer size and complexity of this deployment would also present safety and environmental issues.

Despite the challenges of beginning the partnership in the midst of an economic downturn and the unpredictability of the industry’s reaction to this disruption, the best and brightest from both companies joined the effort. The result is a system based around a super-sensor and powerful new software. The sensor is lightweight, requires very little power and operates on small, built-in, long-life rechargeable batteries. Take the sensor to a central station each time the survey lines are repositioned and it can easily be recharged. Unlike most land seismic acquisition systems used today, which are based on wired networks, this system is completely wireless. With no cables to worry about, the system can be deployed at lower cost, with less time, less worry and fewer resources required.

In addition to the logistical benefits, the sensor also measures waves at ultra-low frequencies that are well beyond the range of conventional technologies. Since lowfrequency waves travel much farther through the subsurface than do higherfrequency signals, Shell wanted to gather data down to 1 Hz or below, which is especially important for such deep exploration targets as subsalt and sub-basalt plays. Lower frequency waves also carry critical information not contained in higher frequencies and are needed for the accurate processing of seismic data into reservoir models. What does this mean in real world terms? If our sensor node was placed in the center of Australia, it would detect the wave motion on the shores of the continent.

The software that is part of the package needs to manage 40 terabytes of data coming in daily from a million-channel survey, compared to the 2.9 terabytes of today’s typical systems. For comparison, the first 20 years worth of observations by the Hubble Space Telescope has amassed only a little more than 45 terabytes of data. The system is also designed to manage logistics and quality control for up to 1 million nodes. The nodes will be linked into a high-speed, low-power field network, which would communicate seismic quality control and system status data to a command center where progress of the survey will be monitored and managed.

Unlike conventional system, each sensor node will be able to automatically report its presence, its operating status, its location within the survey and data quality statistics. The goal is to develop a seismic acquisition system so robust that it also can be operated in a “blind” mode to minimize deployment cost and provide the flexibility for networked communication and quality control as required.

In the challenge of supplying the energy consumption needs of the world there exists an opportunity for a great leap of innovation. Meeting this challenge requires a boldness of vision, which is made possible by the partnership between HP and Shell. Boldness has power and we need that power to find the way. The boldness of this vision is why we will succeed and why other companies will partner with us. The world is full of good ideas but innovation is all about making ideas real.