Clear as Mud: This Advanced Acoustic Technology Brings Visibility to Underground Operations

Hydraulic fracturing operations aren’t easy to monitor, and for good reason: they take place several kilometers beneath the earth’s surface. It’s hard to transmit data when there’s so much dirt and rock getting in the way.  

Consequently, wellbore operators can be forced to rely on guesswork, with results that can be hit-or-miss. But Calgary-based company Cold Bore Technology wants to erase conjecture from fracking operations and replace it with accurate, real-time awareness of everything that’s happening underground.

To achieve this feat, the founders of Cold Bore Technology—a Zone Startups Calgary company—invented a proprietary acoustic event identification system, built on Predix, GE’s industrial cloud-based platform. Using a series of magnetic sensors placed on the surfaces of frac trees, they create noise profiles to interpret and identify different events underground.GE-Fracking-1-FINALFrac trees are a series of steel valves that sit on top of wells, through which fracking fluids — typically a mixture of water, sand, and lubricants — are injected at high pressure. The fluids travel through a wellbore and shoot out into the rock layers, creating cracks. These fractures allow natural gas and petroleum to flow more freely and evacuate back up to the surface through a pipeline.

Fracking operations need to track what’s happening with the pressure of the liquids, but until now, it’s been very difficult to find the signal in all the noise.

 “Acoustic event identification uses a fancy microphone system to characterize the noises we’re listening to downhole. A lot of the money in our software went into noise cancelling. You know your noise-cancelling headphones? We developed that times a million,” says Brett Chell, president of Cold Bore Technology. “We can hear 26,000 feet down when our microphones are 40 feet from pump trucks on the surface.”

Without this technology, operators have little data to work with to indicate whether their underground activities are successful or not. Most rely on a pressure gauge that spikes when there is an event. “They must infer what is happening and make decisions based on a best-guess scenario,” Chell says. When downhole operations go wrong, companies can pump away tens of thousands of dollars in fracking fluid and rack up extra labour costs.GE-Fracking-2-FINALThe data from the sensors is analyzed on location in real time, and again after it’s been uploaded to Cold Bore’s servers.  A mobile interface for tablets instantly shows what’s happening with each valve’s pressure, volume and position, and captures each downhole event.

In 2014, Cold Bore had developed and patented sonic telemetry technology for drilling, testing it by piggybacking on tools going down live wells. A year later, conventional oil and gas production hit a period of decline, so Cold Bore set its sights on fracking.

Now they’re in a growth phase. Operations in Canada and the U.S., and soon the Middle East, have embraced Cold Bore’s acoustic technology. “We were a startup in 2014 developing drilling technology in Canada. You couldn’t have done something worse at that time,” Chell says. “With a lot of hard work and a bit of luck it turns out we found a massively underserved market that may be even more lucrative.”


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