Sector Brief: Extreme Components Oil and Gas Exploration and Production

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oil  gasNo tool is better than its failure rate.  As more sensitive electronic components are housed onboard downhole, bottom-hole and MWD tools, their ability to withstand extreme conditions and perform reliably is essential.  Therefore, improved, highly reliable and thorough electronics testing in addition to the increased capabilities and availability of 'extreme components' are critical value offering from the semiconductor industry.


Of great importance to the exploration and production (E&P) sector in the oil and gas industry, is the reliability of highly specialized, extremely rugged 'downhole', 'bottom-hole', and measurement while testing (MWD) tools and equipment.  E&P processes are extremely intensive in time, personnel, and financial resources.  As a result, the fail-rate prediction of the testing and monitoring equipment cannot be left to probability rates, nor have variable lifespan durations that can interrupt costly and complex work in extreme environments that are full of numerous risks and hazards, challenges and opportunities.

The extreme components utilized in state-of-the-art E&P tools and equipment are truly phenomenal in their capabilities, durability, and ruggedness.  These tools must perform critically precise functions while governing multiple control processes and tools in the most extreme conditions and at great distances from the monitoring stations where technicians and scientists oversee them.

This sector brief focuses on the extreme electronics components that are now a mainstay for the E&P sector. 

The specialized E&P market and semi
Oil and gas E&P is a long-standing industry with extremely specialized methodologies and tools intended to perform, monitor, and record highly sophisticated, dedicated and critical tests in extreme conditions.  The E&P tools themselves have been changing noticeably over the past couple of decades, and even more rapidly in the last couple of years.  Some industry-based reasons are, of course, related to the new demands placed on well testing and measurement while drilling (MWD) tools.  These demands are related to more extreme, remote and demanding environments, such as deeper subsea exploration and more complex horizontal drilling, for example.  These conditions, in turn, necessitate tool invention and modification to meet the new environments and tool requirements.

From a more tool-based view, some reasons for the rapidity of the recent tool evolutions in E&P are based on the dramatic and recent changes in the semiconductor industry itself.  The engineering advances of the electronics employed in the tools have dramatically improved and allowed for further specialization and capabilities, thereby stretching the horizons for tool innovation as well.  These electronics engineering advances include significant changes in ICs, microprocessors, sensors, accelerometers, gyroscopes, other electromechanical systems and related semiconductor components.  More specifically, the engineering advances in the electronics components that have directly improved tool performance and capabilities include:

  • advances in lower power consumption (leading to longer use and/or reduced power requirements)
  • robustness, including extreme temperatures (-40 to 200 degrees Celsius), pressure (base requirements frequently at 25k psi) and shock/vibration resistance(>1,000 hits)
  • significantly improved reliability
  • failure rate reduction
  • increased RF signal strength and radius to meet more remote well locations from the test platform
  • constant signaling
  • both remote and on-tool microprocessors recording downhole measurements and tests that are now automated

The increased automation also opens the door to additional, welcomed tool improvements as the costly and lengthy well-testing and MWD processes can now be off-loaded from human to microcomputer governance.  Automation of downhole, bottom-hole and MWD processes in extreme environments, at significant distances from the testing platform, is critical because of the increased delay in signal timings due to the distance.  Having microprocessors onboard the tools increases the immediacy of response times to critical and/or sudden changes in conditions, among other significant improvements increasing performance of downhole tools.  These immediate responses are critical in order to make the quick adjustments to downhole tool operations, such as extremely fine-grained steering adjustments in horizontal drilling situations.  These adjustments are essential to avoid hazardous situations, work delays, and similar situations.  The time delay due to lack of proximity to the well-head means that a tool that can perform pre-programmed, immediate functions adds significant improvement and value to the critical E&P processes.

However, no tool is better than its failure rate.  Therefore, as more sensitive electronic components are housed onboard these downhole, bottom-hole and MWD tools, their ability to not only withstand extreme conditions but also to demonstrate controlled and expected failure rates is critical to avoiding unacceptable delays, halts or errors that can lead to millions of dollars in losses.  Therefore, improved, highly reliable and thorough electronics testing in addition to the increased capabilities and availability of 'extreme components' is a critical value offering from the semiconductor industry.  Fortuitously, these meticulous testing processes do not represent a new domain to the semiconductor industry and therefore are leveraged processes for these new components to highly sophisticated E&P tools. 

There is a significant barrier to entry to the testing and distribution of reliable extreme components, as the experience and the business partnerships coupled with the right testing equipment is not a routine capability in the semiconductor industry. There are, however, a handful of electronic component companies with a history and record of experience in rigorous testing in providing extreme components for a number of high mix, low volume markets such as E&P for oil and gas, military and defense, aerospace, as well as medical technology.  Smith & Associates, located in the backyard to the Gulf of Mexico, alongside many of the world's major E&P companies has over 25 years of proven reliability and testing experience.  As a supply chain partner of extreme components to O&G manufacturers, Smith & Associates leverages our experience and knowledge of components and of the O&G sector to provide exceptional quality assurance, reliability and value.

The MEMS revolution and extreme components meets E&P
One of the critical component classes that has experienced significant advances to the benefit of the E&P sector is electromechanical systems.  More specifically, the advances in both nano- and microelectromechanical systems (NEMS and MEMS, respectively), the electromechanical systems sector has experienced dramatic advances, leading to significant improvements in the range, durability, robustness and capabilities of sensors (cf. MarketWatch Quarterly Vol. 3 No. 2, "The Small Revolution").  This architectural evolution has lead not only to more companies being engaged in critical research and development (R&D) culminating in exciting engineering advances, but also to the commoditization of these components.  This commoditization increases the availability of the sensor systems/components (i.e., more 'off the shelf'), as well as expanded capabilities and ruggedness of these components.

For example, in the sensor market, silicon magnetic sensors are showing great growth promise as new materials open new opportunities for these sensors to be used in more rugged, extreme environments (cf., iSuppli 12/29/09 here , EETimes Asia 3/19/10 here,  and DigiTimes 12/31/09, "Silicon magnetic sensor market offers attractive growth"). More specifically, while fiber-optic materials may not be able to withstand many of the bottom-hole conditions, namely temperature and pressure extremes, these new silicon-based materials for housing components are opening new capabilities and environments in which these critical sensor systems can operate. 

The micro- and nano-scale electronics components are similarly critical technological advances for E&P tools.  Some of these advances that hold promise for E&P include new nanowire transistors for microchip transistors with increased features on smaller footprints with improved energy efficiency and more cost effective prices; ultra low power pressure and temperature sensors with embedded microcontrollers and/or accelerometers; and high temperature power MOSFET transistors (cf.  Yole Developpement's Micronews, Issue 90, March 2010, pp. 1, 4, and 15, respectively).

Other smaller architecture advances important for E&P can be found in components being utilized in drill strings.  Drill strings are important because they provide a means for retrieving and/or replacing tools as the need arises during the downhole processes.  Yet with drill strings there are fixed size requirements for any component to pass through them, specifically, size cannot exceed two inches in width, although length can measure up to twenty feet.  The micro- and nano-scale electronics now available present an obvious opportunity.   These smaller sized components mean more sophisticated sensor systems and greater microprocessing and/or memory capabilities can be housed on these boards, thereby increasing the functionality (i.e., types of testing and measuring) and data recording of these multiplexed control systems and tools. 

Extremely robust
More complex E&P processes in extreme and truly remote environments, such as ultra- and subsea wells, multiple production trees, and increased horizontal drilling techniques are becoming more necessary.  Thus making the capabilities and ruggedness of the electronic components, now more necessary to guide and monitor the processes, more critical.  The semiconductor industry, and particularly the booming MEMS and NEMS sectors, are providing important breakthroughs in the electronics that can now withstand the extreme conditions faced by E&P tools, even within special housing chambers in these tools.

Today's E&P tools now house critical and extreme electronics components fulfilling numerous functions and tasks.  These tasks are being performed in more extreme conditions and are gaining in complexity, now requiring multiplex signaling to govern the various functions, valves and controls while also governing the collection, sending and storing of critical data from a vast array of sensors.  Additionally, the increased remoteness of the E&P tools means that the time delay from critical data being sent up to the main station and then a response back down to the well-head now necessitates that on-board microcontrollers handle these functions.  Having increased programming capabilities means increased functionality. 

In sum, today's downhole tools are highly sophisticated, complex tools that not only represent some of the most sophisticated hydraulic engineering, but also house the most extreme electronic components in any market.  The cutting edge of extreme electronics is finding fascinating challenges well beneath the earth's surface.  The success of these components in meeting tough E&P challenges is based on both advances in electronic engineering and on highly sophisticated and reliable testing ensuring that when these components are sent on mission critical jobs, they perform as expected – and they are doing so at improved costs as well.

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