ChonocoPhillips’ Chief Technology Officer Ram Shenoy shares his vision of the future.
What does a chief technology officer at an E&P company do?
My responsibilities cover all aspects of developing and incorporating technology and innovation into ConocoPhillips’ businesses, including defining and recommending technology strategy to the Executive Leadership Team – the framework under which research and development projects get executed, defining criteria by which we decide whether to source technology internally or externally, setting intellectual property strategy, and developing the guidelines for the company’s approach to collaboration with external partners – academic institutions, national labs, other companies – on technology and innovation.
What are some of the most exciting trends you’re seeing in upstream technology today?
Advances in high-performance computing, coupled with advances in algorithms for modeling and simulation in different fields: Elastic full waveform inversion in geophysics is leading to better ways of imaging the subsurface to find hydrocarbon accumulations that we couldn’t find before; molecular modeling methods in chemistry and the life sciences are being transplanted to chemical recovery processes in oil and gas; and advances in communications networking, telemetry and control and robotics will allow the instrumentation and automation of the oil field to an unprecedented extent.
Advances in information technology – particularly mobile applications, networks and telemetry – are enabling many applications of computing in environments where it was not previously possible in the oil field. Real-time troubleshooting and diagnosis of production facilities in offshore and remote environments is one example. Another is real-time control of the drilling process to optimize the time spent in wellbore construction.
We are beginning to examine the implications of nanotechnology research in a variety of areas – for example, coatings to combat corrosion and new types of miniaturized sensors that use carbon nanotubes, enabling new types of interfacial science at nanometer-length scales.
What research challenges are being given top priority? How is ConocoPhillips focusing its efforts on these priorities?
It’s a priority to understand how to best explore and exploit low permeability and shale plays around the globe. Given ConocoPhillips’ current and anticipated position in unconventional reservoirs, this is a focus area – spanning all aspects of reservoir characterization, development and production.
Another emphasis is to make advances in geophysical imaging and seismic to establish our position in deepwater and thick subsalt plays globally. We also are looking at technological advances in deepwater facilities – for instance, subsea and downhole power management; more effective ways of managing drilling processes; and assuring access to hydrocarbons in a safe and predictable manner – to reduce the cost of exploiting deepwater, while being safe and environmentally responsible. Major themes for us include the architecture of the future deepwater oil-field installation and how we can modularize and standardize subsystems and interfaces between subsystems that comprise deepwater installations to improve reliability, safety and economics.
We are also very aware of the need for technology to minimize the environmental footprint across the range of our operations. One example is to look for ways of managing the use of water in our various operations, including oil sands, unconventional reservoirs and producing facilities. Another is to develop technology to ensure deepwater operations are safer and cause minimal disruption to the environment.
What does it mean to be a high-tech company?
To understand the sophistication of technology in the oil and gas industry, it’s helpful to think of a couple of examples. One is to recognize that there is a loose analogy between the different types of activity that take place around an oil and gas reservoir and what the medical industry undertakes when examining and treating a human patient. Just as X-ray imaging gives information about the bone density in a patient, we use sophisticated X-rays to understand the density of rocks and hydrocarbons in the subsurface – except the instruments have to work several thousand feet below the surface, in a small borehole about 6 inches in diameter and at pressures of over 10,000 pounds per square inch and at temperatures of 125-150 C plus. Just as a surgeon does minimally invasive surgery using fiber optic sensors to steer surgical instruments inside the human body, drillers now use a variety of sensors to steer a drill bit and entire drill strings in complex trajectories that are several miles long and several miles deep from the surface, hitting hydrocarbon reservoir targets. It requires bringing together a variety of scientific disciplines together to apply technology in the oil and gas industry – chemistry, physics, mathematics, engineering – in a complex interplay in what is a very large and complex system to find, lift and deliver hydrocarbons to key markets.
What are some of the breakthroughs we might expect to see in the next decade?
I expect we will mature our understanding of unconventional reservoirs to the same level as conventional reservoirs. This will require fundamental improvements in our understanding of hydrocarbon transport in shale rock at the nanoscale level and in our understanding of the geomechanics of shale reservoirs.
To fully exploit deepwater, we will need to develop equipment to operate in harsher environments than ever before, for example, operating at pressures of 20,000 psi and higher and subsurface temperatures of 350+ F, where today there is no equipment qualified for such operations. To recognize successful exploration plays, we will need to continue advancing geophysical acquisition and imaging. We expect advances in IT and computing, coupled with advances in robotics, will begin introducing automation to do more comprehensive monitoring and control of operations, while reducing the number of people placed in challenging operating environments, particularly offshore.