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Department of Geology and Geophysics

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UW, Industry Collaborate on Tight Oil Research

woman in safety goggles working at lab table

University of Wyoming graduate student Virginia Marcon loads unconventional reservoir rock into a gold crucible in a UW Department of Geology and Geophysics laboratory, part of a research project analyzing geochemical reactions of the rock in the Powder River Basin with chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing. (UW Photo)

August 6, 2015 — Oil and gas producers in Wyoming’s Powder River Basin are expected to gain insights that will improve the precision and effectiveness of their operations as a result of a cooperative research project with the University of Wyoming.

A team of researchers from UW’s Department of Geology and Geophysics, as well as the School of Energy Resources, has joined forces with Helis Oil & Gas Co. and Devon Energy for the second phase of the Cretaceous Tight Oil Consortium. The group aims to find the best ways to tap unconventional oil reservoirs in what has been one of Wyoming’s busiest oil fields this decade.

“We’re excited to be working with these independent companies to help figure out ways to be more efficient in developing existing fields,” says Erin Campbell-Stone, senior lecturer in the Department of Geology and Geophysics. “We hope the result will be more production, which means more revenue for the state and the university, along with an increased general understanding of Wyoming geology.”

The first phase of the research, which began in 2012, focused on the stratigraphy of the tight sandstone of the Frontier Formation in the Powder River Basin. Using core and outcrop analysis, as well as well log interpretation, graduate student Rebekah Rhodes provided a clearer picture of the subsurface that will help companies better model and more efficiently extract oil from deep reservoirs.

The second phase, which is just getting started, involves analyzing the interaction of hydraulic fracturing fluids with the minerals of the Frontier Formation. Hydraulic fracturing is a technique used to extract oil and gas from rock by injecting high-pressure mixtures of water, sand or gravel and chemicals.

“We’re looking at how the fluids react with the Frontier Formation,” says John Kaszuba, associate professor in the Department of Geology and Geophysics and the School of Energy Resources. “That should provide companies with information about what treatments to use downhole to maximize production.”

Using core samples from the Frontier Formation and chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing, UW researchers over the next two years will duplicate underground temperature and pressure levels in the laboratory to analyze the geochemical reactions. The research could provide insights into chemicals to use or avoid during hydraulic fracturing.

In some cases, it’s possible that certain chemicals stimulate reactions that reduce the flow of oil and gas prematurely, Kaszuba says.

“If minerals behave badly, they can plug wells,” he says. “If there are steep production drop-offs in certain wells, they could be mineral-related.”

The other UW faculty member helping lead the research is Brandon McElroy, assistant professor in the Department of Geology and Geophysics. He says, “The combination of stratigraphic and geochemical research could substantially improve well completions in the Frontier Formation and other similar reservoirs.”

Officials with Helis Oil & Gas and Devon Energy say the consortium’s research is valuable to the companies.

"This initiative is important on many levels -- for industry, the academic community and the state,” says Paul Lawless of Helis. “Everyone wins when efficiencies are improved through better technology and a better understanding of what stimulates production most effectively. We applaud the university for this innovative research and look forward to continuing our engagement with the consortium.”

“These types of industry and academic collaborations help Devon achieve best-in-class performance by utilizing cutting-edge technology to drive better business decisions,” says Dale Fritz, Devon’s vice president of reservoir technology and optimization. “We’re pleased to have a role in this valuable project.”

In addition to the expected benefits for oil and gas producers and for the state, McElroy notes that the students involved in the research are gaining valuable knowledge directly applicable to Wyoming industry -- and scientific skills that will help them in their careers, wherever they go. Involved in the project are three graduate students and two undergraduate students, along with McElroy, Kaszuba and Campbell-Stone.

“The students are learning how to identify and solve fundamental scientific problems,” Kaszuba says. “Looking at and understanding fundamental problems, and then applying their scientific findings to applied problems, is at the heart of what we want them to learn at the university.”


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