Gift allows students, researcher to drill down for answers

By Jason Winders
May 09, 2013

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BurnsPaul Mayne, Western News
Petroleum Geology chair Burns Cheadle walks through a suite of geoscience visualization and simulation platforms with Sarah Sweeney and Wes Greig, masters students under Cheadle, in the Petroleum Geoscience Laboratory in the Department of Earth Sciences.

Burns Cheadle is never short on questions. Now, the Petroleum Geology chair has the capacity to answer a few more of them far faster than before, thanks to a $5 million gift-in-kind from Schlumberger Canada.

This week, Schlumberger announced a multi-million gift to Western of advanced software licenses for the company’s suite of geoscience visualization and simulation platforms. The platforms expand the analysis capabilities of the Petroleum Geoscience Laboratory in the Department of Earth Sciences, under the leadership of Cheadle.

“This gift lets us think about questions others aren’t as lucky to be able to do,” Cheadle said.

Schlumberger is the world’s largest oilfield services company, employing 115,000 people in 85 countries. In October 2009, Schlumberger donated the initial software, worth $498, 067, to the lab.

The software represents the state-of-the-art system for analysis and 4D visualization of geological and geophysical data acquired during oil and gas exploration and development.

Essentially, it can look down the hole before there is a hole.

The system constructs subsurface models of geology going forward in time. That last part – ‘time’ being the fourth D in the 4D aspect of the system – is the key. Once models are constructed, then researchers can simulate what happens if a well is dropped into a certain area. The model explores everything from what oil and gas production would be to the impact on the surrounding geology.

Used currently in industry, the technology opens the door to newer and more efficient ways of exploration and extraction. For instance, pumping a typical well, currently, recovers only about one-quarter the oil available. This system can help optimize that effort by suggesting different avenues of recovery.

“The risk is in drilling the wells. So if you can find a way to get more out of a well, it’s safer,” Cheadle said. “So there’s a big opportunity out there for us.”

At Western, the gift triples the number of seats with access to the various modules on the system and puts the university’s graduate students and researchers in front of cutting-edge technology.

“It would be the envy of any oil and gas shop – be it a small operation or Exxon,” Cheadle said. “They would drool to get their hands on it. Some have, actually.”

Gifts like this are at the heart of Western’s campaign, said Susana Gajic-Bruyea, Alumni Relations and Development associate vice-president.

“We know Dr. Cheadle is a true leader at Western,” Gajic-Bruyea said. “And now, through this gift, he is bringing together the best of the academic and corporate world to ensure our students are exposed to the best teaching and research techniques possible.”

While this donation shortens the learning curve for students to slide into industry positions, Cheadle said it’s not merely a matter of teaching students to push buttons in the proper sequence. There is a reason this technology is important at a research-intensive university, he stressed.

“Like any technology, there can be a garbage in-garbage out aspect to it. The advantage of this being used in a university environment is we can teach students to use the technology and put critical-thinking behind what they are using it for,” Cheadle said.

Beyond oil-gas industry use, Cheadle sees application for the technology within other research disciplines. The modeling can be used by mineral researchers to visualize ore bodies or, perhaps most excitingly to sustainable energy advocates, can be used to explore the potential tapping into geothermal energy from abandoned drilling holes.

“We’ve already drilled the holes; they are there, more than 600,000 in Western Canada,” Cheadle said. “How can we harvest that? This can help model that scenario.

“We’re limited only by our imagination of how to use it.”


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