​Virtual reality isn’t just cool: U of C lab promises to make Alberta’s oil and gas more competitive

Inside the U of C's virtual reality reservoir simulation lab. Image: R.P. Stastny

Headset on, shuffle this way. Watch your head! There’s a horizontal well there.

You’re now actually standing in the virtual reality of an underground oil reservoir, modelled in shades of blue, beige, white and yellow.

Point your controller at any segment of the formation and you get a read out of data—pressures, porosities, etc.

Virtual reality isn’t just cool; it promises a better, more intuitive understanding of subsurface reality, which University of Calgary scientist Zhangxing (John) Chen, said is key to improving oil and gas efficiencies while also testing new extraction theories in real-time without the expense, environmental impact and potential frustration of experimenting in the field.

“When you see things three dimensionally, you get more information and you see data in action. You don’t see much in two dimensions,” said the NSERC/Foundation Computer Modelling Group Industrial Research Chair in Reservoir Simulation.

As one of the world’s top oil reservoir simulation researchers, Chen recently won a prestigious national award from NSERC for synergy in innovation for his work in the Industrial Consortium in Petroleum Reservoir Simulation.

“Seeing in three dimensions is like being in a cave underground and mapping out that reality. So you have more attributes, faster information and easier, more useful information,” he said.

Chen's team is working with companies such as Nexen, Suncor and Husky within the consortium to test new heavy oil and bitumen recovery processes.

“Once you have an idea, you come here and test the idea. Every new technology has to go through a simulation and modeling study to see how it will work,” he said.

Some of this work focuses on optimizing solvent-assisted SAGD processes.

“Solvent is very expensive. So how much solvent do you inject, when do you inject, at what temperature, what pressure and what parameters—all these critical issues this can be modeled,” he said.

The school’s simulations are based on mathematical models, and those mathematics come from real field data. The more accurate the field data (provided by companies), the more accurate the simulation outcomes.

“In these simulations we now include more physics—the chemical combinations and also the temperature effects and the geo-mechanical effects of gas or vapour. So more data inputs and this reflects more reality,” he said.

Chen estimates that this latest generation of simulations represents a 30 per cent improvement in accuracy over previous versions, and “it’s 1,000 times faster than the old ones.”

“We’re at a critical stage. Why? Because oil prices are low. If we want Alberta to prosper like it did during the boom, we have to make heavy oil and the oilsands work for us again," he said.

"We also have to bring operating costs down across the entire industry."

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