As of 2011, national oil company Saudi Aramco amassed a total of 159 patents. This is testament to its continuing drive towards greater innovation
It cannot attribute its record-breaking production levels to one factor alone. Its new technologies range, from nano-robots that can travel through rocks, to laser technologies that can detect every change in underground oil fields. The only concern is that its production will be so successful, it will cause political tension with other OPEC members.
The company’s 2011 annual review contains more impressive numbers. To date, there have been 161 oil exploration and development wells completed; and 113 total oil and gas field discoveries. Yet the single new “wildcat” oil well unearthed in the Rub al-Khali only yielded 2,300 barrels of oil this year. Saudi Aramco produces 9.1m barrels of crude oil a day. This year’s record yield could equally be attributed to Aramco’s skilled workforce. It declares having made a “significant increase in the number of new employees hired,” to whom it offers generous healthcare, education and housing packages.
More significant perhaps is its R&D department, ranked highly by its peers. One new development this year was the MonoSat technology, which enables a far more accurate calculation of critical well parameters from reservoir logs. It helps get a better estimate of water saturation, the ultimate ideal for petrochemical analysts. Combined in a study of subsurface temperature and pressure, gas and crude oil gravity, this new information improves the calculation of a well’s formation volume factor (number of barrels it is possible to extract).
The company gained ownership of an effective way to create interactive maps of oil wells and reservoirs in 2006, when it created ‘DesertRay’. This oil fingerprinting technique uses laser pulses, to induce light signal responses from oils. The spectrum of reactions is examined by the DesertRay system within a tiny window of 2-5 nanoseconds. It is analyzed to produce what Aramco’s R&D program in Dhahram describes as “two-dimensional contour diagrams which act as spectral fingerprints of the oil.”
A library is collected of all the site images, which are stored permanently on DesertRay. The system notifies the operator of all changes resulting from contamination or degradation of the oil, within thirty seconds of them being detected. The team is currently researching fibre optic capabilities, to test inside existing storage tanks, trucks and ground water wells. Currently it is utilised principally on oil pipelines, but in the future it may be possible to fire the laser pulses from an overflying helicopter and get an overview of a much larger area.
This year the team continued to map out their resources; they made 32 comprehensive three-dimensional models, of 60 oil and gas reserves. The use of petrochemical algorithms has advanced to the degree where it has proven possible, in the Ghawat field, to create real-time, highly accurate maps for drilling. Results show the newly patented algorithm technology “improves the calculations of saturation and permeability,” and a “dramatically reduced time to update models,” where previously it took months.
Perhaps the invention that received the most publicity were the Resbots, microscopic robots around 1/1000th the size of a human hair. Aramco’s self-proclaimed ‘international award-winning research’ was only first trialled successfully in June 2010. The nanobots are added to water, then injected into the rock walls of an oil reservoir. They are small enough to pass through the ‘pore throats’ which connect the tiny pores in the reservoir rock.
Once immersed there, the Active Resbots perform three major functions: analysing reservoir pressure, providing temperature measurements, and accessing the fluid type. They are then collected at productivity wells, where their memory files are downloaded and analyzed. What Aramco calls the ‘Reactive Resbots’ “will be able to intervene to adjust unfavourable conditions by delivering chemicals, called surfactants, to allow easier flow of the reservoir liquid.”
In 2011 the company created Geo-Knowledge online Data Access Solution, a programme all its diverse employees can access internally; from petrochemist analysts to programmers and engineers. It collates information from corporate databases, geological and geophysical specialists, giving them up-to-date data from rivals and researchers. The innovative GigaPOWERS, a virtual reservoir simulation technology, enables analysts and engineers to manipulate these maps and data virtually by hand.
The company’s future plans are almost limitless. Development of offshore facility the Manifa field, fifth-largest oil field in the world, is almost 97 percent complete. There are a number of new gas developments in the pipeline, like the Shaybah Natural Gas Liquids Program, with its pioneering Online Predictive Technoloy. Aramco also asserts its intention to diversify into petrochemicals. On top of its existing collaborations with Sumitomo Chemical and the Dow Chemical Co., its joint venture with Total Oil Co. SATORP (Saudi Arabian Total Refining and Petrochemical company) is “in the advanced stages of construction of one of the most complicated refineries in the world”.