A New Non-Contact Swelling Meter for Assessing Early Stage Shale Hydration: Market and Capability Assessment

Lead Research Organisation: Durham University
Department Name: Earth Sciences


This involves engaging with end-users within the known market sector of oil & gas: BP and Chevron have agreed to supply samples (reservoir cores) to test the performance of the new device against well characterised samples; M-I SWACO have already expressed interest and Saudi Aramco will be approached via existing contacts. The stakeholders will primarily be approached for assistance in developing and refining the IP in the following ways:

- What are the needs of the end-users in terms of features and functionality and final analysis reporting of clay hydration and drilling fluid analysis? This will help us realise the full scope of a product/service that can be considered competitive in the market we intend to address.

- What are their current methods for initial hydration tests of wellbore material and drilling fluid effectiveness? This information will allow us to identify the strengths and weaknesses of our existing IP.

- Can they confirm that there is a market need for our IP?

This research will involve:
- A technological analysis on the available competitor products to determine key areas of scientific development which can be incorporated into our product designs. This will also expose the risks involved with building a more advanced product.

- An investigation into the analysis techniques used to extract useful information from the data of the instruments. This will enable us to develop a standardised reporting format which will great increase efficiency and effectiveness of our IP.

- Market strategy analysis which will shed light on competitor strength of brand, distribution strength, market reputation, breadth of product and technical support. This will allow us to develop the IP to a point where it can offer benefits over competing solutions.

The starting point for the research is a competitor GRACE's instruments with which R. Patel (the researcher) and contacts in M-I SWACO have direct experience. Access to other competitor products will be made via BP and Chevron.

Although the driving market use for our IP is oil & gas exploration, the measurements that can be made using our IP are applicable to a broader market. There has been interest from existing contacts in hydrogen storage company, Cella Energy looking to measure expansion of their materials in water at high pressure and temperature, as well as UCL Physics. Any discipline where expansion of a material is measured over time in contact with water and other fluid chemicals can be approached. We will explore existing contacts within the food and pharmaceutical materials industry, as we believe these are another market for out IP. It is therefore imperative that these relationships are built and maintained to optimise the position of our IP within the overall market.

This work will be performed by external consultancy, Woodview Technology Limited, who have considerable expertise in technology development for the energy industry (see Letter of Support). Alongside our existing contacts with end-users, they will engage with their own, larger network of supply chain companies who might be potential customers of our IP. This will broaden our network and develop a better informed strategy for commercialisation. Woodview Technology Ltd will address the following points:

- Perform a market and IP analysis to aid in the development of a licencing agreement for partners to buy into the technology.

- Investigate opportunities for patenting the IP.

- Investigate viability of providing IP as a product or service.

- Develop a route to market strategy, involving liable future activities, risks, etc

Planned Impact

The Follow-on Fund project would enable a detailed analysis of both technical requirements and, critically, the commercial models that would be favoured by operators (for example, whether developing an instrument to sell to operators, or marketing a service for testing samples, or both of these approaches). The survey would enable us to target specific applications and give us an appreciation of competitor technologies and the types of fluids/rock samples that are likely to be used within the instrument. Through using independent experts (Woodview Technology Ltd) used to working with the oilfield sector to undertake this analysis, the development of the instrument will gain credibility and be more trusted than if academics undertook the market sector analysis. Through this project and a subsequent Follow-on-Fund application, the detailed and comprehensive testing with reporting in an industry facing format will provide robust and trusted data for subsequent commercialisation.

The development of this instrument into a commercial product and/or service will lead to a more accurate and reliable testing of shale swelling, especially at very low swelling pressures and short time scales, which will enable more rapid and sensitive analyses. This will allow for faster shale investigations and a more effective drilling-fluid formulation/optimisation, i.e. reduction in cost due to better time management during initial research, while on site, and whether trouble shooting is required. The Pathfinder will allow development of standardised testing and inbuilt analysis making reporting much easier to perform and understand. The instrument will be cheaper than existing commercial alternatives, reducing costs of purchase and maintenance. Furthermore, the instrument will be provided with greater technical support, through product testing and inbuilt general user interface (GUI) which will assure increased ease of use and reduce opportunities for user error. The flexibility of the instrument results in a technology that can be readily tailored to meet different user needs and requirements.

Where the use of the technology is developed as a service by the project team, it will reduce end-user training and support requirements since all measurements are done in-house. Analyses can be bespoke as they can be developed according to each individual user. There would be an expected reduction in time spent on working with instrumentation and collecting data on materials. Use of the swelling tests as an industry service would reduce the time spent performing analysis using more primitive analysis methods.

Both scenarios reduce time spent undertaking shale swelling tests and increase reliability and accuracy of information. This will ultimately reduce costs, particularly in the offshore oil and gas industries where time-critical operational overheads are very high. A particular benefit to the oilfield industry will be from the capacity to start to study the underlying contributing factors to bit balling, a hitherto difficult to address challenge, which hinders rate of penetration and may dramatically increase the time required to drill a well bore.

Society will benefit from the improved sensitivity in the measurements available to discern between new, greener (highly biodegradable) and more sustainable drilling fluid technologies for exploration and production in environmentally sensitive areas, for example in pristine frontier areas such as around Greenland or the Falkland Islands. This aligns with the "social right to operate" ethos now operated by many oil companies. A small difference in performance, resulting in reduced usage, would tip the balance in favour of greener, but more expensive technologies over existing products in a relatively conservative market sector. This scenario was encountered in the IP in the Technology Strategy Board NIMES project (CRD Q2506L) by the research team.


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Mathias S (2017) Analytical solution for clay plug swelling experiments in Applied Clay Science

Description We have developed a better understanding of the potential applications for the swelling meter. Though there has been a downturn in offshore oil and gas operations, there may be scope from the perspective of geothermal wells. On shore, especially unconventional oil/gas wells are drilled in a way which would possibly preclude studies with the instrument, though in countries with more sensitive regulatory regimes opportunities may be available. The use of the swelling meter instrument may be better offered as an oilfield service than an instrument sales perspective. The first publications arising in this area would establish interest.
Exploitation Route This equipment still provides a step-change in rapid, accurate and reproducible testing of swelling of shales. A MRes student, Tara Love, used the instrument and has been recruited by BP to an iCASE PhD programme at the University of Cambridge. The results of the study were of interest to BP, where we studied the effects of quartz grain size and content in swelling stability of shales. This work will be further developed in future years.
Sectors Chemicals,Construction,Energy,Environment

Description Though a 1 year MRes project the instrument was the subject of the Pathfinder award has enabled data to be delivered to BP that in early 2018 resulted in the PI being invited to BP at Sunbury to discuss the ways that the BP drilling fluids programme could benefit from the data capture advantages of the device. A CONACyT funded PhD student has been secured to further develop and test the instrument. The instrument capability was presented to Schlumberger, and contract negotiations are under way to top up the PhD funding.
Sector Chemicals,Energy,Environment
Impact Types Economic

Description BP Fluids 
Organisation BP (British Petroleum)
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Private 
PI Contribution New link to team leader of BP drilling fluids technology. This is an emerging collaboration where we have been asked to present aspects of this project, along with other projects, to the BP team in the first quarter of 2018.
Collaborator Contribution The partner has covered our costs towards attending meetings and briefings.
Impact Too early. Starting to work up project ideas.
Start Year 2017
Description CONACyT PhD student "Understanding Shale Swelling & Stability" 
Organisation National Council on Science and Technology (CONACYT)
Country Mexico 
Sector Public 
PI Contribution We designed the project around the swelling meter and to further develop it on the basis of the report generated from the NERC Pathfinder award.
Collaborator Contribution PhD studentship
Impact Just started.
Start Year 2019
Description Schlumberger PhD student top-up funding 
Organisation Schlumberger Limited
Country United States 
Sector Private 
PI Contribution Development of instrument and pitch to Schlumberger via existing contacts.
Collaborator Contribution Schlumberger are looking at contributing £7K per annum to the studentship. This is presently under contract negotiation.
Impact None thus far.
Start Year 2019