Aramco’s EXPEC ARC pushes technical innovation and excellence
As a world-class operator, Aramco continues to invest in research and development (R&D) to address current and future challenges in the oil and gas industry. In 2022, Aramco invested millions of dollars in R&D. Much of this effort is coordinated by the company’s Exploration and Petroleum Engineering Advanced Research Center (EXPEC ARC), headquartered in Dhahran, Fig. 1. This research organization has been in existence since 2006.
The vision of EXPEC ARC is to be a preeminent center for subsurface technology research and development, globally renowned for invention and innovation. Fig. 2.
EXPEC ARC’s mission is to conduct research and development of subsurface technology to create innovative, high-impact solutions and tools for Aramco’s Upstream business line. Leveraging advanced technology and innovation, EXPEC ARC aims to unlock new possibilities and solutions that deliver significant value to Aramco’s Upstream business line and its stakeholders. By establishing strategic partnerships with leading academic and research institutions around the world, EXPEC ARC continually seeks to enhance its position at the forefront of energy research. The ultimate goal is to contribute to a sustainable development of the energy industry, to create a better future for generations to come.
“Aramco’s EXPEC Advanced Research Center is driving innovation to develop cutting-edge technologies that are essential to our Upstream goals,” said Waleed Al-Mulhim, Senior Vice President, Petroleum Engineering & Development, at Aramco. “EXPEC ARC is pioneering in research and development of sustainable solutions, helping Aramco achieve efficient, sustainable, and responsible energy production while minimizing the environmental footprint.”
EXPEC ARC STRUCTURE/FUNCTIONS
EXPEC ARC develops specialized technologies necessary to achieve its Upstream objectives of increasing the discovery of oil resources and increasing reservoir recovery. EXPEC ARC functions with a balanced projects portfolio.
The organization is divided into several research divisions, including:
- Advanced Technical services
EXPEC ARC works diligently to solve unique field challenges across all these Upstream domains and has created a prolific environment to develop innovative technologies. Its researchers have also been able to help secure patent protection for these new solutions, allowing Aramco to use its competitive products and processes exclusively, thereby extracting value from its innovative technologies.
In 2010, Aramco celebrated its 100th patent granted by the U.S. Patent and Trade Office. Eleven years later, in April 2021, EXPEC ARC had surpassed 1,000 cumulative U.S. patents granted, making Aramco one of the top innovative international oil and gas companies. This signifies the company’s leadership position in Upstream R&D, and it illustrates the fertile environment for creativity and innovation the company fosters to support its operations.
EXPEC ARC’S NEW FACILITY
In August 2017, construction started in Dhahran on a new building for EXPEC ARC. Construction was completed by January 2022, and the building became fully operational by December 2022, Fig. 3.
To the best of our knowledge, EXPEC ARC’s new facility is the largest R&D facility worldwide, supporting oil & gas research. EXPEC ARC’s new facility is a reflection of 2022’s R&D investment level. The building is one of the largest facilities of its kind in the region, offering 54,800 m2 of space, including 300 fit-for-purpose lab modules, capacity for 800 people, and it has many modern features.
The building design philosophy promotes a culture of well-being, engagement, collaboration, knowledge sharing, and innovation, with nine bridges that connect the different research divisions. This innovative design incorporates a world-class research environment, with state-of-the-art facilities and capabilities for agile R&D that include the following items.
High-bay, imaging, and core labs among others, facilitate advanced experimentation from atomic-scale to field-scale within a safe testing environment. The high-bay labs, for example, allow easy reconfiguration to accommodate advanced experiments and future expansions that will scale up R&D and host field-scale testing inside the building.
Specialized clean room provides contamination-free analytical settings. These rooms accommodate a wide range of controlled environments for geological samples handling and preparation.
Purpose-built computational areas are equipped with high-performance hardware and software, capitalizing on the latest 4IR technologies. This will help solve key modeling and seismic processing challenges.
These rooms and areas feature a variety of existing and new equipment that researchers utilize for technology innovation. For instance, back in 2017, EXPEC ARC established the Upstream High-Power Laser Laboratory, a state-of-the-art and cross-disciplinary research facility for subsurface photonics, Fig. 4.
With this state-of-the art facility and advanced research capabilities, Aramco is well-equipped to meet its target. This investment in research and infrastructure shows the company’s dedication to leading the energy industry and providing reliable, sustainable energy.
EXPEC ARC’s global and national presence is manifested in several research centers beyond the main campus in Dhahran, Fig. 5. The global research network has facilities located in targeted innovation hubs in the U.S., Europe and Asia. With this global network spanning the world, the company’s scientific research continues around the clock. What follows are details on some individual facilities.
KAUST (King Abdullah University of Science and Technology), Thuwal, Saudi Arabia. On June 27, 2022, Aramco inaugurated the Aramco Research Center at KAUST, which aims to accelerate the development of low-carbon solutions for the energy industry, using advanced analytics. Strategically located within the University, this new research hub deploys artificial intelligence and machine learning to develop innovative ways to advance low-carbon solutions and enable a Circular Carbon Economy.
Research domains at KAUST focus on advanced materials, Internet Of Things & robotics, advanced sensing, and artificial intelligence & advanced computing. As a conduit for driving innovation, KAUST is home to Aramco employees pursuing advanced degrees, as well as being the point of entry for many new-hire graduates.
Delft, The Netherlands. This facility focuses on developing advanced computing technologies and delivering impactful HPC solutions for subsurface characterization. These technologies maximize the efficiency and effectiveness of Aramco’s cutting-edge computational resources, resulting in reduced turnaround time and improved quality of the subsurface data analysis. Such capabilities enhance Aramco personnel in developing an accurate understanding of the subsurface geology.
Moscow, Russia. At this location, there is a focus on research towards developing the next-generation digital solutions for Upstream applications as well as technologies that foster safer and greener field operations.
Aberdeen, Scotland, UK. The technology office in Aberdeen focuses on developing reliable and cost-effective tools and multiphase metering solutions that increase safety, improve efficiency, provide more accurate fluid flow measurements, and reduce emissions to support the Company’s operations and sustainability goals. Research focus areas include advanced drilling tools and automation, artificial lift, well intervention, advanced completion, and multiphase flow measurement. The office is strategically located to leverage the strong local ecosystem through partnership and collaboration with innovative academic and industrial institutions.
Houston, Texas, USA. This facility (Fig. 6) focuses on Upstream technologies for both conventional and unconventional resources, for the purpose of supporting discovery, recovery and sustainability goals. There is specialization in many research areas, including improving well-productivity, Nano-based polymers, and drilling operations, among others. The Houston center is Aramco’s largest R&D center outside Saudi Arabia.
Beijing, China. In this location, research is targeted at advanced oilfield chemistries, intelligent geoscience applications, as well as direct and alternate sequestration. With wide technology innovations, from AI diagenetic modeling and GPU seismic imaging to in-house polymer formulations for sweep improvement and scale inhibition, Aramco’s research here is already being used in the field to cut costs and improve oil exploration and production. Future technology innovations in direct and alternate sequestration, outlined through in-house and collaborative R&D, will be used to further support low footprint operations and net zero ambitions.
Boston, Mass., USA. This site supports both the Upstream and Downstream businesses. Its proximity to many technology hubs and academic institutes means ever-closer collaboration on research projects focused on modeling, visualization, simulation, and advanced materials. Aramco’s Advanced Materials & Catalysis Technology team also researches membrane technology for gas separation and sweetening, materials for heavy hydrocarbon removal, and porous.
EXPEC ARC encompasses a multitude of technology projects. In this article, we shed light on three key domains, including sustainability, 4IR and production enhancement, under which several technologies have been developed and deployed. “At Aramco, we believe that our strive towards scientific excellence in applied research is the key to the lead the Upstream technology development space; our brilliant workforce will excitingly unlock the future that is full of opportunities in sustainability and digitalization” said Ghaithan Al-Muntasheri, Director of EXPEC ARC at Aramco. “By investing in Upstream research, we are able to develop cutting-edge technologies that increase our efficiency, reduce our environmental footprint and ultimately help us achieve our goal of being a sustainable and responsible energy producer.” What follows are examples of impactful technology projects carried out by EXPEC ARC Fig. 7.
ASAD—Robotic. Autonomous seismic acquisition device (ASAD) is a fully in-house-developed technology for specialized near-surface and seismic operations, to assist conventional land seismic acquisition. ASAD units are designed to operate in swarm formation, with automatic path planning for the safest and most efficient data recording. With ASAD, Aramco expects significant improvement in the productivity of land seismic operations, enabling access to otherwise inaccessible areas, enhancing the company’s exploration and resource assessment capabilities. This is done in a sustainable manner, with maximum safety for field personnel.
DATE—Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Internet of Things (IoT). The “Drilling at the Edge” (DATE technology platform is a major digital transformation initiative, where people, sensors, data, algorithms, and processing power existing on a drilling rig, at the edge, are coordinated around real-time information to accelerate decision-making and optimize operations. Whether taking into account people or machines, or combinations of them, the DATE platform has shown that processes and organizations work better when they can be coordinated around real-time information.
SpiceRack—AI and Robotics. Conventional seafloor seismic acquisition uses seismic sensors positioned on the seafloor that are either attached to cables or standalone cableless sensors. Moreover, for the deployment and retrieval of nodal sensors, a Remote Operating Vehicle is required, which increases the total duration of such surveys and thus significantly increases acquisition costs.
Alternatively, the SpiceRack system is a disruptive technology that employs robotized and automated solutions for the deployment and retrieval of autonomous underwater vehicles as seismic sensors. Consequently, by introducing automation during seafloor acquisition, Aramco anticipates a survey cost reduction of 30% and an increase in field crew productivity of 50%.
GeoDrone-Robotics, AI and High-performance computing (HPC). The GeoDrone workflow involves image acquisition of geologic outcrops, building 3D models by processing the data, constructing virtual field trips and experiences, and providing analogue data to our subsurface rocks. The technology business objective is to provide accessible subsurface rock analogues for use in education and geologic modeling. The business impact includes cost-savings by improving subsurface geologic models through the use of outcrop analogues. Cost savings are achieved through reducing fieldwork time, improving safety by substituting physical field work in risky areas, and facilitating professional knowledge by providing accessible educational experience.
Accordingly, Geology Technology researchers at EXPEC ARC are now sending unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to conduct “virtual geological field trips.” The UAVs easily glide over and more accurately document challenging geological features and terrain. EXPEC ARC conducted the first of these field trips to the Al Lidam area west of Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. About 5,000 aerial photos were acquired, covering the entire outcrop (300 m x 50 m). A resolution of 0.25 mm per pixel was achieved in some vertical sections. Alternatively, such jobs would require two half-day missions to achieve this milestone.
VFM-AI. Virtual flowmeter (VFM) technology is an innovative approach in measuring reservoir fluid flowrates and is considered an essential part of the Upstream production engineering infrastructure. This technology uses AI algorithms to estimate flowrates, utilizing pre-installed downhole sensors. VFM technology can reduce cost, improve flowrate accuracy, and accelerate efficiency in Upstream operations.
ZLD-Sustainability and water management. The Zero-Liquid Discharge (ZLD) produced water management solution treats and desalinates oilfield produced water by transforming its ionic properties to deliver a high-value end-product. ZLD solution comprises a unique combination of a custom-designed pretreatment system, to remove residual oil and also, hydrogen sulfide, together with dynamic vapor compression, to remove salt from hypersaline oilfield produced water.
ZLD is a win-win technology, a win for the environment by minimizing wastewater disposal volumes and conserving groundwater, and a win for oil recovery, due to the reuse of treated produced water for injection into the reservoir and unconventional/tight gas well stimulation. This technology has won World Oil’s 2020 and 2022 Best Water Management Technology Awards for the innovative water treatment scheme and successful field demonstration, respectively.
Aramco’s EXPEC ARC has made great strides in its 17-year history, Fig. 8. The remarkable surge in U.S. patents granted in recent years is a testimonial to the progress made by EXPEC ARC’s researchers on a number of technology fronts. An additional barometer of this organization’s expanding capabilities is the growing number of World Oil Awards earned in the last several years by technology developed at EXPEC ARC. The capabilities of EXPEC ARC and the results it generates are benefiting Upstream oil and gas projects worldwide, improving the quality of life for all. The future remains bright for further achievements and recognition.
Editor’s note: World Oil would like to thank everyone at Aramco and within EXPEC ARC, in particular, who have contributed to the content of this article.
- Applying ultra-deep LWD resistivity technology successfully in a SAGD operation (May 2019)
- Adoption of wireless intelligent completions advances (May 2019)
- Majors double down as takeaway crunch eases (April 2019)
- What’s new in well logging and formation evaluation (April 2019)
- Qualification of a 20,000-psi subsea BOP: A collaborative approach (February 2019)
- ConocoPhillips’ Greg Leveille sees rapid trajectory of technical advancement continuing (February 2019)