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'Sweet Spot' Technology Could Cut Fracking 30-50%, Developer Says

An entrepreneur with roots in coalbed methane and his company are seeking collaborators to further test a technology that detects, identifies and quantifies hydrocarbons in shale oil and gas wells.

Laramie, WY-based WellDog has been working with Royal Dutch Shell plc to adapt for shale oil and gas applications WellDog's Raman spectroscopy technology, which it and its customers have been using in coalbed methane plays for years. The technology can find the "sweet spot" in shale plays and tell how much gas and natural gas liquids are present, WellDog CEO John Pope told NGI's Shale Daily.

The sweet spot technology can tell operators where to land their laterals and could lead to a 30-50% reduction in hydraulic fracturing (fracking) stages and fluid use, Pope said, citing industry studies of late that have shown that distribution of gas in shales can be highly variable, leading to variable production results.

"It's pretty simple," he said. "This is a science that's been around for a very long time. It's called Raman spectroscopy. Sir [C.V.] Raman got the Nobel [Prize in physics] for it in 1930. It has not been used widely outside of the laboratory until the last decade or so. We are the only company that's taken a Raman spectrometer and packaged it into a format where it can be used downhole."

WellDog's tool shines a laser at a molecule and detects the color change in the photon that bounces off the molecule because some of its energy was absorbed into the molecule. "So if you look at the color change that happens during that process, you can see what the characteristic excitation energy of the molecule is -- in other words what the color is of that molecule -- and that tells you what the molecule is. And also the number of photons that change in color tells you how many of those molecules are there. So you can both identify and quantify the gasses that are present," Pope said.

So far, WellDog and Shell have focused on applying the technology to finding gas and determining whether it is wet or dry. This is a "simple extension" of what WellDog has been doing in coalbed methane in the Powder River Basin, Pope said. "The next work that we have under way right now is to extend it to oil versus wet gas and condensate."

Pope conceded that WellDog isn't the first to take a crack at applying Raman's technology in the oil and gas patch.

"There have been many other people that have tried this, and to our knowledge none of them have been successful," he said. "The fact is, this measurement is highly demanding because not only do you have to create a sensor that can go into these environments, it has to measure things reliably and accurately in an oilfield environment, which can be very challenging from an engineering standpoint.

"You also have to be able to understand what you're measuring in terms of what the sample is that you're seeing and where it came from. And then you have to understand what that measurement means in terms of the reservoir physics and what the measurement is representing in terms of actionable data that can help an operator make different choices."

WellDog was formed in 1999 by Pope, who has a doctorate in physical chemistry, after he had worked with his geophysicist uncle on exploring natural gas hydrates in the Gulf of Mexico. They had looked over a proposal from the Russian Academy of Sciences for using a Raman spectrometer to explore hydrates. "In the end, we decided that there was a better way to do that," Pope said. "I started WellDog in order to pursue that."

Rather than continuing to travel from Wyoming to the Gulf of Mexico and look for gas hydrates, Pope decided to package the technology into a wireline tool that could be deployed to look for natural gas in the nearby Powder River Basin. "In the coalbed methane area, we became so good at [detecting gas] that, for example, reserves auditors would use our numbers for booking SEC [Securities and Exchange Commission] assets." Pope said.

While Pope and WellDog were plying the coals, shale players for the last 10 years or so were asking for the technology to be adapted for their use. "We've worked on it off and on over that time," Pope said. "These last two years we've completed that adaptation with Shell.

"The shale operators that have asked for this help have come from every basin and every type of shale. Our sense is that this variability in hydrocarbons, this variability in gas occurrence, is endemic across all shales."

Beta trials of the technology are ongoing with one well in the Marcellus Shale. WellDog plans to try it out on other wells in other shales.

"...[W]e're inviting the rest of the industry to join us in those trials," Pope said. "So as soon as we test enough wells that we understand all of the performance envelope of the sensor in this application and that we can reliably generate data that can help the operators find their pay zones, that's when we'll be commercial." He said costs for using the technology are not yet known, but they will be "small compared to the cost of a well that is not productive."

Application of the sweet spot technology has relevance from the exploration phase all the way through development, Pope said. "Carbonaceous deposits like shales and coals inherently have heterogeneities in the reservoir that are widespread. And as a result, the exploration and appraisal phase measurements typically do not indicate production success.

"Another way to say that is that you never really end exploration when you're developing these reservoirs...The need for a sensor that can tell you where the gas is or the oil is, is no smaller later on when you're optimizing than it is early on when you're exploring."

Besides the Powder River and Marcellus, WellDog has worked in the Permian Basin, Eagle Ford and Bakken shales and in the Niobrara Formation. Internationally, the company has been active in Australia since 2010 as well as in New Zealand, Canada, China and Mozambique.

Prior to working with his uncle on hydrates, Pope was a professor in Tokyo working on battery materials; he later started a battery company in Wyoming and by now has started a few companies, ranging from high tech to low tech.

On the low-tech side, there's a Laramie, WY, steakhouse called Calvaryman, in which he is a partner. Pope also is a partner in a company called Centennial Woods, which reclaims old snowfence in Wyoming and repurposes it for planking, siding and flooring. These enterprises, WellDog and others that are engaged in fuel cells, nanomaterials and carbon sequestration are part of privately held The Blue Sky Group, which focuses on technology and green businesses.

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