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.
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.
Professor Martin Langer | alfa
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