Shale Holds Huge Potential for Researchers at Universities
- Stephen Rassenfoss (JPT/JPT Online Staff Writer)
- Document ID
- Society of Petroleum Engineers
- Journal of Petroleum Technology
- Publication Date
- June 2011
- Document Type
- Journal Paper
- 30 - 34
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A simple question, “Can you tell us about shale?” has spawned growing research programs at universities around the globe.
In less than five years, industry-supported university research has played a key role in defining the structure and elements in shale. The work in a group of laboratories at the University of Oklahoma (OU) in Norman, Oklahoma, is an example of the competitive drive to understand these challenging rocks.
Now the goal is to explain the inner workings of these rocks and use that understanding to find more oil and gas and produce it far more efficiently.
“The whole thing started with the question: Can you tell us about shale? It is leading into so many interesting areas,” said Chandra Rai, who along with Carl Sondergeld has led the OU lab at the Mewbourne School of Petroleum and Geological Engineering. The pair and a longtime lab manager moved into academia in 1999 when BP donated its petrophysics lab to the university.
At the time, shale exploration was often still seen as little more than an interesting experiment by Mitchell Energy Company in the Barnett Shale around Fort Worth, Texas. During the following decade:
- The lab—renamed the Integrated Core Characterization Center—moved to OU’s main campus in Norman.
- Devon Energy bought Mitchell Energy and showed that drilling horizontal wells could significantly increase shale gas production.
- The industry mobilized to tap the enormous potential in unconventional reservoirs.
In 2004, Devon’s shale exploration team started seeking more outside advice.
“When we began to look at it, we realized we had some big questions about shale,” said Jeff Hall, vice president of exploration at Devon. On the list were: How does oil and gas move through the rocks to the wellbore? How can we better complete wells in this reservoir? There are big differences in production from well to well. Why is that?
Devon’s shale research led it down a meandering path. It started with a geophysical study that morphed into a geological study that raised engineering questions. Hall said, “We began to realize it is more complicated.”
To begin with, researchers had to find tools capable of looking into the structure of these extremely fine-grained mudstones. When they did, it was clear the name shale covered a variety of things. “People started with the idea that all shales were all the same,” Sondergeld said. “It is amazing when you see the microstructure how different they are.”
Other companies and universities followed a similar path into shale research. The size of the resource, and the work needed to go after it, are both huge. From the start, the research indicated how unconventional shale reservoirs really are. As the list of questions grew, so did the range of experts involved.
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