Rivière and Digital Rock help Shell increase efficiency of energy production

Process shows more detailed picture of what’s going on underground for improved oil and gas recovery.

Béatrice Rivière

It sounds like a musical genre but Digital Rock has more to do with oil and gas than guitars and drums.

“The use of Digital Rock technology is part of the digitalization movement in the oil and gas industry. Digitalization helps increase the efficiency of energy production at a reduced carbon footprint,” said Béatrice Rivière, the Noah Harding Chair and Professor of Computational and Applied Mathematics.

For the last five years, Rivière has served as principal investigator for a three-university research project with Shell Global Solutions International. Her Rice collaborator is Walter Chapman, the William W. Akers Chair Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering.

“Walter is a specialist in thermodynamics. He works at the nano-molecular scale. Our collaboration is good because we bring specialized knowledge to the project,” she said.

Digital Rock is a process that involves scanning rock samples at the micro-meter scale, followed by 3D image reconstruction of their pore structure and the numerical modeling of multiphase flows in the set of connected pores. In other words, a sharper and more detailed picture of what’s going on underground.

“Our goal is to revolutionize the way reservoirs are characterized and how oil and gas recovery processes are designed,” said Rivière, whose research group, Computational Optimization and Modeling of Porous Media (COMP-M), includes six doctoral students and two postdoctoral researchers.

Her team has written a parallel software in C++ that simulates a two-phase flow in the 3D porous structure captured by the micro-CT scanning of the rock. “We are able to add complexity to the models we make for Shell. They provide us with the data. For modeling, what they want is more detail, which helps them save money and save time,” Rivière said.

Rice’s academic partners in the Shell project are Cambridge University and Imperial College London. Shell supports 50 high-performance-computing applications around the world. Roughly three-quarters of them involve seismic imaging, but a growing number of the rest are Digital Rock modeling.

“Digital Rock is different from seismic imaging, which is driven by the quantity of data. With Digital Rock, we can obtain faster insight into the rock-fluid interactions traditionally done with time-consuming and expensive lab experiments. We can’t replace completely the lab experiments. The objective is to work together with lab scientists to optimize the rock analysis,” Rivière said.

One more year remains for completion of the Digital Rock project, by which time Rivière expects Shell to have put her group’s findings into practice.