Digging Deep: Professor, doctoral candidates test new oil extracting method

 Dr. Stacy Atchley examines core samples of crude oil in a core repository in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.Courtesy Photo
Dr. Stacy Atchley examines core samples of crude oil in a core repository in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.
Courtesy Photo
By Viola Zhou

A geology professor and two doctoral candidates in geology at Baylor are working on new ways to extract crude oil in western Canada.

Macomb, Mich., doctoral candidate Caitlin Leslie said heavy oil is difficult to extract, because it has been partially degraded by bacteria and is very thick. A special technology called steam-assisted gravity drainage will be applied in the drilling process.
In this system, two horizontal holes are drilled in the ground. Steam will pass through the upper hole to melt the oil, allowing it to flow down to the hole underneath.

After working with data in Calgary this summer, Dr. Stacy Atchley and the doctoral candidates, are conducting an analysis of its oil distribution. Their results will guide gas companies in drilling for oil.

“Heavy oil in western Canada is one of the largest accumulations of oil reserves in the world,” said Atchley, chair of the geology department. “And it’s critical to the national security of both Canada and United States, as we try to increase our self-reliance on crude oil.”

Canada is friendly in trading with the United States, so the reserve there can be a reliable source, he said.

In 2013, the U.S. imported 3.6 million barrels of crude oil. Approximately one-third of the reserves were from Canada, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. This oil is transported to the U.S. through the Keystone pipeline system.

Doctoral candidate Hunter Harlow said they collected data in a core repository in Alberta, Canada, where they found millions of core samples from all over the country.

Leslie said they examined samples taken from 260 meters underground in the repository, and noted their properties including texture, porosity and oil saturation.

“Everything we are looking at is below our feet,” Leslie said. “We can’t see it necessarily unless we look at core. This allows us to get a peek into what rocks are like beneath our feet that we are targeting.”

With the data collected, the team is drafting maps to show the location and depth where high-quality oil can be found, she said.

The analysis results will be ready early next year. They will be passed to a sponsoring consulting company, which will then provide the information to gas companies.

One student is going back to Canada with Atchley in February to present their report to the companies.

Atchley said the highly profitable oil industry is attracting many geology students.

Leslie said both she and Harlow want to enter the industry, and that this project gives her a taste of what working in the oil industry will be like.

“It’s really challenging,” she said. “You kind of need to think outside the box and put a lot of different things together until ultimately come up with one product.”

Harlow said Baylor has the largest size of geology freshmen ever this year. Many switched to geology majors after taking an introductory class.

“The industry is getting competitive now,” Harlow said. “Five or 10 years ago, there were less people. It may have doubled now.”