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What do phone systems, cable TV and the Internet have in common? They have all come to depend on optical fibres, the fine threads of glass that carry digital information in the form of light. Heat, vibration, bending or squeezing the fibres affects the light they carry. When the fibres are strung out along pipes in oil or gas production facilities, these effects can reveal important changes in the operating conditions of pipelines or wells.

Just as the nerves in fingertips constantly send sensory information to the brain, optical fibres continually pick up and relay data to a control centre. Shell has adapted sophisticated information technology to process the data to manage its oil and gas production. This is known as Smart Fields™. Operators are then able to use the processed information to keep oil and gas flowing safely.

Protecting pipelines: Optical fibres pick up ground tremors, such as from diggers excavating, alerting pipeline operators of a possible intrusion.

Detecting leaks: In the unlikely event that a pipeline cracks, escaping gas cools as it expands. The optical fibre immediately responds to the temperature drop, notifying operators of the leak. Such tiny leaks would otherwise be hard to detect, because pure natural gas is odourless.

In the hole

Optical fibres continually pick up and relay data to a control centre

Optical fibres continually pick up and relay data to a control centre

Optical-fibre sensors in Smart Fields work not only near the ground but also deep below the surface. Shell technologists have lowered them into oil wells to keep tabs on conditions from top to bottom.

The optical fibres detect blocked flows in the reservoir, for example. They also provide other information on the forces between rocks and fluids that affect conditions in the reservoir and in the well.

Taking temperature: Steam is sometimes injected into a reservoir to heat the oil, making it thinner and runnier. The optical fibre pinpoints where the steam is giving off most heat. Engineers want to make sure that this heat is released in oil-bearing rock. Otherwise, the substantial energy needed to boil water would go to waste.

Measuring pressure: Variations in pressure can be observed with special optical fibres. They reveal changes in the interaction of the forces that drive the oil to the well.

Listening to flows: If gas enters the well, optical fibres are sensitive enough to pick up the sounds of gas bubbles rising. Too much gas in a well can disrupt oil production, requiring the point where gas enters to be sealed off.

Sensing changes in shape: Rock layers may settle as a result of oil production. Optical fibres detect the narrowing of the tubing, suggesting to engineers that a different design may be needed for future wells.

Smart fields

A single optical fibre can replace thousands of traditional sensors that detect pressure, temperature, sound or motion. And it can do so for less cost. Simply by analysing the pulses of light it carries, engineers can locate disturbances to the fibre and determine their cause.

With optical fibres, operators can continuously monitor every metre of kilometres-long pipelines and wells. As a result, the overall management of field operations improves.

Optical fibres are one new component of Smart Fields technology, which can help increase the total amount of oil recovered from a field by 10% and the total amount of gas by 5%.

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