Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:


Fossils Point the Way to Black Gold


Drilling for oil is expensive – and only too often unsuccessful: in 80 to 90 per cent of all attempts the drill head ends up in worthless sediment rather than hitting the black jackpot as intended. In this way, with every unsuccessful drilling, companies squander several million euros. Yet there is an alternative: the use of tiny fossilised single-celled organisms can reveal to the expert where prospecting for oil is worth while, a dying art at which only a few specialists worldwide still remain proficient. A micro-palaeontologist at the University of Bonn is now training specialists in this discipline in conjunction with the firm RWE/DEA.

(photo: Langer)

Some of them look like two-euro pieces made of limestone. For oil companies they can be worth their weight in gold, these unicellular organisms from the foraminifer group. In the sediments of the oceans there are sometimes veritable mass graves of these ancient fossils, which are shaped like round, flat discs or small bulbous lenses, some of them smooth, some provided with bizarre protuberances. What they all have in common is the porous limestone shell with which they are surrounded – and which makes them so important in the search for black gold. The reason for this is that sediments with a high proportion of foraminifers can absorb oil and gas in the porous limestone mantles like an enormous sponge – ideal conditions for the existence of a large deposit.

“Oil is formed when organic material is subjected to pressure and high temperatures, usually at a depth of several kilometres beneath the surface of the land or the ocean bed,” Professor Martin Langer of the Bonn Institute of Palaeontology explains. From there the oil passes through the strata of rock above as if through blotting paper, until it is prevented from rising further, for example by a layer of clay, which acts as a kind of lid. Whether the deposit is likely to yield a lot of oil basically depends – apart from the shape of the “lid” – on the storage capacity of the rock strata involved.

In order to detect this popular energy source the companies carry out a kind of “ultrasonic test” in potentially promising areas: they produce sound waves, monitoring the way they expand and are reflected in the ground by means of geophone recordings. Computers then produce pictures on the basis of the seismic data, which show the pattern of strata in the ground – and on which the trained eye can recognise potential deposits. “However, unfortunately the pictures only have a limited spatial resolution, “ Professor Langer explains. “Firms frequently drill a few hundred yards away from the right location. At the depth indicated they then only find empty rocks.” By means of the microfossils which the drill brings to the surface experts can conclude whether the area really is empty, or whether the drill has simply not yet reached the oil deposits. The fossil finds even enable specialists to find their bearings on the seismic map: by comparing the finds with the strata predicted, the micro-palaeontologist can determine where exactly the drilling should be made or how it needs to be corrected at the second attempt.

“Industrial micro-palaeontology is a venerable art,” Professor Langer adds. “All the large oil prospecting companies used to employ their own fossil experts.” When seismology came along it was thought that the new technology alone would solve the problem. “Since 1980 many micro-palaeontologists have been made redundant, which is why there are so few people to take their place.” Many companies have now realised their error, but there is a shortage of specialists who can provide appropriate training for new micro-palaeontologists. Last spring, for the first time, Professor Langer offered a vocational training course in this long neglected field – and it was a huge success. “We had applicants coming for the two-day course from the US, India and South Africa.”

Worldwide there are only a few institutions in the US and Europe which train micro-palaeontologists for the oil industry. After the successful test run Professor Langer’s aim is now to establish the vocational training course at the University on a long-term basis. “Bonn has a long micro-palaeontological tradition. We have at our disposal one of the largest collections in the world. The chances are good that we could become an international centre for this branch of research, which had almost been consigned to oblivion.”

Professor Martin Langer | alfa
Further information:

More articles from Process Engineering:

nachricht Applying electron beams to 3-D objects
23.09.2016 | Fraunhofer-Institut für Organische Elektronik, Elektronenstrahl- und Plasmatechnik FEP

nachricht New process for cell transfection in high-throughput screening
21.03.2016 | Laser Zentrum Hannover e.V.

All articles from Process Engineering >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: New 3-D wiring technique brings scalable quantum computers closer to reality

Researchers from the Institute for Quantum Computing (IQC) at the University of Waterloo led the development of a new extensible wiring technique capable of controlling superconducting quantum bits, representing a significant step towards to the realization of a scalable quantum computer.

"The quantum socket is a wiring method that uses three-dimensional wires based on spring-loaded pins to address individual qubits," said Jeremy Béjanin, a PhD...

Im Focus: Scientists develop a semiconductor nanocomposite material that moves in response to light

In a paper in Scientific Reports, a research team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute describes a novel light-activated phenomenon that could become the basis for applications as diverse as microscopic robotic grippers and more efficient solar cells.

A research team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) has developed a revolutionary, light-activated semiconductor nanocomposite material that can be used...

Im Focus: Diamonds aren't forever: Sandia, Harvard team create first quantum computer bridge

By forcefully embedding two silicon atoms in a diamond matrix, Sandia researchers have demonstrated for the first time on a single chip all the components needed to create a quantum bridge to link quantum computers together.

"People have already built small quantum computers," says Sandia researcher Ryan Camacho. "Maybe the first useful one won't be a single giant quantum computer...

Im Focus: New Products - Highlights of COMPAMED 2016

COMPAMED has become the leading international marketplace for suppliers of medical manufacturing. The trade fair, which takes place every November and is co-located to MEDICA in Dusseldorf, has been steadily growing over the past years and shows that medical technology remains a rapidly growing market.

In 2016, the joint pavilion by the IVAM Microtechnology Network, the Product Market “High-tech for Medical Devices”, will be located in Hall 8a again and will...

Im Focus: Ultra-thin ferroelectric material for next-generation electronics

'Ferroelectric' materials can switch between different states of electrical polarization in response to an external electric field. This flexibility means they show promise for many applications, for example in electronic devices and computer memory. Current ferroelectric materials are highly valued for their thermal and chemical stability and rapid electro-mechanical responses, but creating a material that is scalable down to the tiny sizes needed for technologies like silicon-based semiconductors (Si-based CMOS) has proven challenging.

Now, Hiroshi Funakubo and co-workers at the Tokyo Institute of Technology, in collaboration with researchers across Japan, have conducted experiments to...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>



Event News

#IC2S2: When Social Science meets Computer Science - GESIS will host the IC2S2 conference 2017

14.10.2016 | Event News

Agricultural Trade Developments and Potentials in Central Asia and the South Caucasus

14.10.2016 | Event News

World Health Summit – Day Three: A Call to Action

12.10.2016 | Event News

Latest News

Innovative technique for shaping light could solve bandwidth crunch

20.10.2016 | Physics and Astronomy

Finding the lightest superdeformed triaxial atomic nucleus

20.10.2016 | Physics and Astronomy

NASA's MAVEN mission observes ups and downs of water escape from Mars

20.10.2016 | Physics and Astronomy

More VideoLinks >>>