What lies beneath

An Edinburgh University spin-out is poised to commercialise hydrocarbon mapping technology that could, it claimed, save the oil industry billions of dollars a year.

The company, MTEM, has already received £7.4m in venture capital funding to develop a system that can pinpoint fresh sources of oil and extend the life of existing oil fields with unprecedented speed and accuracy.

Oil companies typically use seismic reflection surveys to locate potential reservoirs of oil and gas. This technique maps subsurface formations by generating acoustic pulses and measuring the time it takes them to return to the surface after reflection from geological formations with different physical properties.

However, these surveys are generally poor at determining the nature of the fluids in the rock pores, and expensive drilling is needed to determine whether the reservoirs contain hydrocarbons.

MTEM founder and geophysicist, Prof Anton Ziolkowski, explained that his company’s multi transient electromagnetic technology is based on a method that can determine whether deep underground reservoirs contain hydrocarbons before drilling. The technology works by sending controlled pulses of electric current between electrodes in the soil and using a measurement of the resistance encountered to determine the properties of the ground.

For instance, because hydrocarbons are more resistive than brine, which is frequently contained within porous subsurface rocks, MTEM’s method is able to distinguish between the two.

While the company is not the only one to use sub-surface resistivity, Ziolkowski claimed that his technique has considerable advantages over marine systems developed by firms such as the UK’s Offshore HydrocarbonMapping, Norway’s EMGS and the US’s AOA Geophysics.

These methods use individual receivers dropped on to the sea bed to acquire the data generated by a towed source operating at a continuous frequency of 1Hz. Ziolkowski claimed that it can take up to a week to collect and process the data, and therefore a week to discover whether or not the survey has been a success.

In contrast, MTEM’s process provides real-time data, and will enable oil companies to quickly discover whether oil or gas is present, claimed Ziolkowski. The reason for this, he said, is that instead of a continuous signal, his system puts in pulses of current with a range of different frequencies.

‘Every time you put a pulse of current in you get a response; we put in many, many pulses in each place and measure the response for each one. By adding them up you increase the signal-to-noise ratio,’ he said.

While the marine system has not yet been built and is unlikely to appear for a couple of years, the company’s land-based system, which recently underwent successful proof-of-concept tests in the south of France, is expected to enter production later this year.

And with much more oil on land than off-shore, it is perhaps the land-based system that has the greatest commercial potential, claimed Ziolkowski.

The real ‘Achilles heel’ of competitive systems, he added, is that their application is limited to deep water. Because they operate at a continuous frequency, when used out of deep water they also generate a signal that travels through the air.

‘Not only do they measure what’s going through the ground, but they also measure, at exactly the same frequency, what’s going through the air, and this contaminates the signal that’s going through the ground,’ he said.

Ziolkowski declined to reveal the identity of likely customers, although there appears to be plenty of interest. ‘All of the major oilcompanies are interested in our technology,’ he claimed.

This optimism was echoed by David Sneddon, director of chief investor Scottish Equity Partners, who claimed that the potential market for the technology is around £500m a year.