New Generation of Microchips to Reduce Production Costs

Field trials will begin later this year to test a new generation of microchips developed by Rice University researchers. These microchips will allow oil and gas companies to reduce production costs at a time when low oil prices mean greater technology efficiency and innovation are needed.

Rice’s Integrated Systems and Circuits (RISC) laboratory developed microchips – roughly the size of a sand grain – can travel downhole through fracturing fluids to plot the cracks and pores through which oil and gas move to the surface. The microchips – which have been under development for the past five years – are then activated by electromagnetic signals sent from an aboveground transceiver, and return real-time data to create high-resolution maps of reservoirs and formations created through hydraulic fracturing.

In the past, operators employed microchips provided by oilfield service companies that were off-the-shelf, Aydin Babakhani, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering and leader of the RISC laboratory, told Rigzone. The microchips developed by Rice are the first microchips customized to an operators’ needs.

The ongoing miniaturization of microchips, combined with their declining design costs and improved performance, can help oil and gas companies reduce costs. The RISC laboratory has developed a prototype spectrometer that, for the first time, uses microchips to locate and measure asphaltenes, deposits that clog production pipe. The lab greatly reduced costs from a $500,000 cabinet-sized machine traditionally used for the process to a $100 microchip that can be sent downhole to do the same.

“What this technology now allows producers to do is create intelligent oil and gas fields without a large capital expenditure, which is crucial when oil prices are hovering at $30 a barrel,” said Babakhani. “The microchips map geologic formations in the same way doctors use medical imaging systems to map vessels in the body.”

Babakhani said that RISC is “strongly positioned” to foster the continued development of Internet of Things (IoT) technologies with its expertise in sensing and wireless communications, and close proximity to the heart of the oil and gas industry. IoT is a network of devices embedded with sensors and network connectivity that enable objects to collect and exchange data.

The laboratory’s microchip research is funded through sponsored research grants; the lab recently received a $1.9 million reward from a major oil producer in support of its microchip research.

Over the past six months, Babakhani said the laboratory has seen a surge of interest from operators seeking a technology that allows them to analyze conditions thousands of feet below the surface, while keeping costs down. This interest can be seen in the almost $5 million in sponsored-research contracts the lab has signed in the past six months. This includes a new $2.4 million grant from a major producer to develop a potentially life-saving technology, a miniature terahertz-based sensor that continuously monitors for leaks of high toxic hydrogen sulfide.


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