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Drilling with print heads: Shell and HP develop seismic sensor system

Cliff Saran

Oil and gas company Shell is working with Hewlett-Packard to use technology originally developed for computer printers to help it discover new oil and gas reserves on land.

The two companies are developing wireless accelerometer sensors, similar to the controllers used in the Nintendo Wii, but a thousand times more accurate, for seismic analysis. The sensors are based on microelectromechanical devices (Mems), originally developed for HP print heads.

"These Mems devices have been developed to take electrical signals and convert them to ink droplets," said Rich Duncombe, distinguished technologist at HP's Technology Development Organisation. "Just as in the semiconductor industry, the device can be used for another function."

The oil and gas industry requires high-quality seismic data to accurately assess exploration prospects for commercial viability and to monitor producing reservoirs effectively. Shell uses the devices, which act like an ultra-sensitive sonar sensor, to send sound waves through Earth, which are reflected and picked up by the accelerometers.

Wim Walk, manager of Novel Geophysical Technologies at Shell, said that in the past, Shell had not been able to get enough high-resolution data to run accurate seismic models on land surveys.

"On land the quality of the data was not very good. This system will render much more high-resolution data," he said. The data can then be fed into Shell's imaging software for analysing potential oil and gas reserves.

HP and Shell plan to build a production system, using the accelerometers as a starting point for gathering the data.

"We have to validate the design, which includes not only the sensors that are connected wirelessly to a command and control system, but also storage systems that can handle petabytes of data daily, together with software to devise surveys," said Jeff Wacker, leader of Services Innovation and HP Fellow, HP Enterprise Services.

The multiyear project will allow Shell to improve the accuracy of its seismic surveys on land. It plans to use a million wireless accelerometer sensors, compared with the tens of thousands of wired sensors it currently uses, to vastly improve the quality of seismic data.

Gerald Schotman, executive vice-president of innovation/research and development at Shell, said, "This will represent a leap forward in seismic data quality that will provide Shell with a competitive advantage in exploring difficult oil and gas reservoirs, such as sub-salt plays in the Middle East or unconventional gas in North America."

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