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Technical Profile: Well-stimulation technology making international waves, one barrel at a time

June 12, 2016  

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Todd Parker is a self-admitted tech geek. Before becoming president and CEO of Calgary-based Blue Spark Energy, he wore a number of different hats in oil and gas, medical instruments, IT services and automation, to name a few.

And while the draw to him was always being able to help cook up new technologies to solve real-world problems, it was the premise of applying compressed electrical energy in the oil and gas market that finally had him fully geek out.

“A former colleague approached me about this top-secret research lab in France where they compressed electrical energy,” recalls Parker, who has logged more than 20 years ago in the oil and gas industry, starting as a wireline field engineer for Schlumberger in Western Canada.

“We had some conversations about what that could do in the oil and gas sector — to use small electricity to do things that we were using explosives, tremendous amounts of horsepower at the service and, of course, chemicals. But when someone tells you that you can run megawatts worth of power from a cellphone, you tend to be skeptical.

“So I ended up flying over there on a weekend because I was intrigued but didn’t believe it. And I came back from that trip and immediately resigned from Weatherford and wanted to be the person who started up a company using this technology in the oil and gas sector.” Parker helped build Blue Spark in 2011 around this well-stimulation technology, developed by I-Pulse Power, which essentially takes small amounts of energy and, for a brief point in time, “makes them do extremely powerful things.”

Dubbed Wireline Applied Stimulation Pulsing, or WASP for short, the technology improves on a decades-old idea to use electricity to create a pulse at the bottom of a well and stimulate production. “What our technology allowed us to do was go back to that mature technology and put a whole new engine in it,” says Parker. “Instead of trying to push a whole bunch of electrical current down a long cable and make it do something at the bottom of a well, which is risky at the surface and poses a lot of opportunities for failure, we created something that could do a lot with a simple extension cord and, at the bottom of a well, turn on hundreds of megawatts of pulsing power, which really broadens the range of applications for that technology.

That’s WASP. It’s an old technology with a new engine.” Electrohydraulic pulsing has traditionally been limited because it has been unable to create large sums of power. Creating highvoltage on surface at the wellhead creates safety concerns. Also, trying to push the high voltage down a long length of cable is prone to failure and burnout.

“The technology has always worked, but it’s also always had limited applications,” says Parker. “For us, we can unplug the coffee pot and plug our stuff in. And at the bottom of the well, every time we pulse, it’s like we’re phone the Enmax plant north of Calgary and saying, ‘turn off every customer you have. I need 100 per cent of your plant’s capabilities to create a pulse at the bottom of an oil well. And then again in five seconds.’”

That hydraulic impulse is a high-power shockwave travelling at more than 1,500 meters per second, and is followed by a 10,000-psi high-pressure pulse. Blue Spark says the energy that WASP uses is equivalent to a tablespoon of orange juice while creating a power output of 240 megawatts. The company notes one of the advantages of the WASP technology is that Blue Spark can repeat these pulses hundreds or thousands of times in a short period of time.

Parker says the technology WASP is built upon is formation agnostic in that the tool removes blockages in the wellbore area. So while it’s sensitive to different formations in the sense that different ones will cause different degrees of wellbore damage, Blue Spark’s tool “doesn’t care” what that mechanism is — it’s powerful enough that it will break it down and reconnect to a reservoir.

Blue Spark started applying its WASP technology in CHOPS (cold heavy oil production) wells because they were the lowest risk at the time. The company, which was recognized with the 2015 Canadian Oil & Gas New Technology Development (Product) of the Year Award, later expanded to other applications such as injector and watersource wells. as well as various completion types such as perforation and horizontal.

In just five years, the company has already documented close to 30 case studies where it has used the technology in different applications and, in many cases, demonstrated a production increase of more than 100 per cent increase within just three months — and some even reporting a five-fold increase, says Parker. In addition to producing and injector wells, Blue Spark has applied the technology to chemical treatment, scale removal and open hole environments.

He credits some of the company’s early successes to launching the technology in Canada, which offers some distinct advantages — notably operators are generally keen to try new technology given on-going pricing pressures. In addition, Canadian operators often face a wide array of production challenges given the different formations.

“This is a great place to introduce a new technology,” says Parker. “And, to some extent, you need to have that work in Canada for international companies to even look at you.” More recently, however, the company has expanded into the U.S., Romania, Norway, Denmark, Iraq and Kuwait. Parker pinpoints the company’s early wins internationally to its work in the North Sea — a typically tough area to train and apply new technology like WASP. “One of the decision we made early on was to putting more eggs into the basket … and expand beyond Canada,” he says.

“We recognized that, for the technology to grow, we needed those landmark markets — areas where people would take notice. So we focused beyond just volume markets like North America and, to prove it’s applications off-shore, also turned to the North Sea, which is regarded as the gold standard.” The company is now looking at Latin America and Far East as potential new markets for the pulse technology.

For the first quarter of 2016, Parker estimated 70 to 80 per cent of the company’s revenue comes from international operations. Yet he adds Canadian interest in the first part of the second quarter has started to ramp up again. “The price of oil change that happened over the last 18 months, it really felt as you went around the world that everyone was in those five stages of grief.

There’s initially denial, and finally acceptance,” he says. “And it appeared the U.S. market got to acceptance first. And so for the last half of last year, that’s where we really saw activity pick up. And now we’re starting to see the North Sea, Middle East and, perhaps, Canada in that stage of acceptance and recognizing that this is the new reality and we need to find innovative and low-risk ways of continuing production.”

About the author: Jamie Zachary is the editor of PROCESSWest.