Energy Company Turns to Geometry to Reduce Gas-Drilling Mishaps

June 29, 2011
Chesapeake Energy taps university researchers to create code for drilling-management program.

Could the discovery of a geometric code solved by university researchers help the oil and gas industry reduce collisions during horizontal drilling activities?

That's the plan for natural gas producer Chesapeake Energy Corp. The company has begun implementing a geometric code solved by researchers at Kent State University in Ohio to lessen the likelihood of such accidents.

Kent State Liquid Crystal Institute professor of chemical physics Peter Palffy-Muhoray and assistant math professor Xiaoyu Zheng first calculated how close two ellipses can come together without touching in 2006, Palffy-Muhoray says. The findings were published in an academic journal in 2009 and later online.

The results eventually attracted the attention of David Baker, a senior geologist and chief technology adviser with natural gas producer Chesapeake Energy Corp. Baker thought the code could help the company avoid potential collisions during the drilling process.

"The reason why this was big interest to Chesapeake is because they drill a horizontal gas well, and they need to control the direction of where the drill bit goes," Palffy-Muhoray says. "When you do that you only know approximately where the head is of the drilling unit. And it turns out that this approximate region is an ellipsoid."

Oklahoma City-based Chesapeake often drills horizontal wells very close to each other from a single drill pad for various strategic reasons, including resource conservation and environmental protection, Baker says.

If the two wells were to collide while drilling, the economic impact could be significant. Chesapeake invests upwards of $5 million per horizontal well, Baker says.

With Zheng's assistance, Chesapeake modified the code for its own purposes, Palffy-Muhoray says.

Chesapeake will test the code in its in-house drilling management software, Baker says.

"The software is used to gather data from our drilling rigs and, among other things, alert the drilling engineer of any potential issues with the drilling process," Baker says. "The code will be used in the collision avoidance alerting feature that the application offers."

Palffy-Muhoray first began exploring how close elliptically shaped molecules could travel without touching while working with liquid crystals as graduate student in the 1970s. He couldn't solve the problem until decades later when Zheng, who was a student at the time, began working with him on the formula.

Zheng and Palffy-Muhoray have received a few additional inquiries about their calculations outside of academia, including one person who was interested in using the code to study pedestrian traffic flow.

For the oil and gas industry, the development offers major advantages but is not entirely unique, says Baker.

"The development is significant in that it makes the collision detection methods more robust - that is fewer false positives," he says. "But collision detection using uncertainty ellipsoids has been used for years, so it is not revolutionary."

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