Feature Report: Energy and Digital Technology

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Digital Technology in Oil Production and Refining

Digital technologies have been used in oil and gas exploration and production, as well as in refining, for many years. The amount of data harvested is growing exponentially and is now fundamentally transforming industrial processes and the way we work.

Local electricity production and the development of smart grids are revolutionizing the consumer-producer relationship. © THINKSTOCK

Sensors

Digital analysis techniques have been used for many years in the exploration of oil and gas deposits, particularly through seismic reflectionGround waves (vibrations) caused by an explosion or weight drop are sent from a transmitter... surveys (See Close-Up "Locating a Potential Oil or Gas Deposit")These techniques have made it possible to obtain 2D, then 3D and now 4D (or time lapse) images of potential deposits. After drillingThe process of boring a hole into the ground using special equipment..., additional measurements are taken using sensors that are lowered into the wells to assess pressure, temperature and the properties of the rocks. These methods are known as logging.

Sensors are being used more and more, and research is being carried out to make them smaller and more autonomous. Major oil companies have grouped together within the international Advanced Energy ConsortiumA consortium is an association of individuals, companies, organizations, governments ...1, which is working on miniaturization projects that leverage nanotechnologies to develop sensors measuring just a few square millimeters.  The goal is to leave these sensors permanently at the bottom of wells, meaning they must be able to resist high temperatures and pressures and be equipped with a battery and transmission system so they can function autonomously.

The resulting big data will be collected and transmitted to specialized analysis centers equipped with supercomputers and provide detailed information on a series of factors (the flow of oil or gas, the presence of water, etc.), that can help improve extraction and rationalize management of the depositAn accumulation of natural resources, such as oil, natural gas, coal, uranium, metal ore or another commodity....

Analyzing digital data from a machine in operation can help predict the occurrence of a breakdown.

Predictive Maintenance 

Sensors are increasingly used throughout industry and particularly in refining. They are connected to machines and continuously record operating data under normal conditions. When analyzed, this data allows operators to detect weak signals, making it possible to anticipate problems before they become worse. This is what is known as predictive maintenance.

Thanks to significant progress in transmitting this data at high speeds, processing can now be centralized and carried remotely in control centers, known as smart rooms. This method is extremely useful for refineries, which cover several square kilometers. 

Robotics

The plant of the future will also be supported by the development of robotics – in other words machinery that can work autonomously, either on land or at the bottom of the sea2. These devices are particularly useful for carrying out routine inspections at isolated operating sites.

Drones are also emerging in oil explorationAll methods used to discover new oil and natural gas deposits. , providing 3D imaging that enables geologists to use all the information gathered on site without leaving their offices. Drones can also inspect pipelines that cover long distances. And in refineries, they can be used to inspect the top of a distillation column without the need to erect scaffolding, or to take gas samples to check for the risk of pollution.

Mobile work 

Digitization is likely to transform working conditions in the coming years. Gradually, all installations are being modeled in 3D with all the related technical documentation. When an operator works on a part, he or she can first work on the digital model and remotely consult the control room. A limiting factor in the oil and gas industry is that the materials used must meet anti-explosive standards, which sometimes means they lag behind devices used in everyday life.

Even clothing (coveralls, helmets, gloves, shoes, etc.) will be increasingly connected in the near future. Laboratories are working on augmented reality helmet visors that can project information into the operator's field of vision, freeing up his or her hands. Connected clothing may also be able to provide medical data that could help improve safety.