Tracking the clues to a hidden underground

A new research centre in Denmark is looking at ways to extract more oil from the North Sea. By focusing research work to achieve a clear business benefit, it aims to improve the recovery from a basin that still has plenty of potential.

Shades of red, blue and green outline ancient underwater channels and escarpments in the chalk sediment of the Danish North Sea, as part of Florian Smit’s PhD research.

Research as an integrated part of Maersk Oil’s business

  • The Maersk Oil Research and Technology Centre (MO-RTC) in Qatar was established in 2010 with a committed investment of up to USD 100 million over a 10-year period
  • It is tasked with developing cutting-edge applications for the Al Shaheen field, while supporting the country’s aim of enhancing knowledge to secure its future
  • The centre focuses on research that creates practical and applicable solutions to clearly defined problems in oil and gas production in Qatar. One of its primary themes is to enhance oil recovery (EOR) success rates by allowing researchers to understand how fluids move through complex carbonate fields, like Al Shaheen
  • The world-class facility is also home to a Digital Core Laboratory – the first of its kind in the Middle East – which enables researchers to analyse and understand the mineralogy of the reservoir rocks

As Florian Smit scrolls his mouse, the 3D map tilts on his screen, with shades of red, blue and green outlining ancient underwater channels and escarpments in the chalk sediment of the Danish North Sea.

In his PhD research into reservoir characterisation at the Chalk Group of the Danish Hydrocarbon Research and Technology Centre – an institute funded by Maersk Oil and its Danish Underground Consortium (DUC) partners and based at the Technical University of Denmark (DTU) – Smit is using a combination of advanced seismic processing techniques to identify and map out promising locations for hydrocarbon reservoirs.

“Now we can recognise the smallest things buried under 2 kilometres of sediment – like a river system or a landslide that happened tens of millions of years ago, as though they happened yesterday”, says Smit, who came to Denmark from the Netherlands five years ago to pursue his geology studies.

“We want to understand why one part of the hydrocarbon field produces oil better than another, and if this is related to the features we extract from the seismic data. By analysing the corresponding rocks in the laboratory for permeability and porosity trends, we can begin to understand how these features can influence extraction. Subsequently, we can apply these lessons elsewhere”.

Practical solutions to business needs

Oil and gas companies have long worked with researchers to improve their search for and production of hydrocarbons. However, the DTU centre is different because of its direct business connection, and its aim is to use that link to focus researchers’ work on areas that can advance hydrocarbon recovery in the North Sea.

Because the North Sea is a mature basin, alternative technologies and approaches must be applied. Seen here, laboratory at the Center for Energy Resources Engineering, DTU Chemical Engineering.

Quest for Oil

 An interactive computer game developed by the Maersk Group, Quest for Oil aims to spark an interest in the oil industry among students

It challenges players to locate oil reserves under the seabeds off Qatar, the North Sea, Southeast Asia, West Africa and the Gulf of Mexico, providing an insight into what it’s like to work in oil and gas exploration

To win, players need to employ knowledge of geography, physics and geology and to tackle challenges relating to exploration, drilling and oil production

To play, please visit

Maersk Oil and its partners in the DUC committed to investing DKK 1 billion over ten years in the research centre. It is hiring people from the industry to work with the researchers, to improve communications and integration between scientists’ areas of interest and passion and the needs of DUC, says Henrik Tirsgaard, Maersk Oil’s head of technology and innovation.

The centre will focus on a few selected flagship programmes, whereby projects are joined across disciplines to address real-world challenges and realise the potential to recover more oil or gas. Work will initially focus on advanced water flooding, targeting increased secondary recovery – i.e. displacement of oil that drives it to the surface – from the Dan, Halfdan and Kraka fields in the Danish North Sea, and other ways of improving production from the mature basin, such as Smit’s work on reservoirs.

“We have given them a lot of freedom, within a specific framework that we created with them”, Tirsgaard says.

Aiming for top

The hydrocarbon research centre is part of Maersk Oil’s broader plans in the North Sea, where it aims to become a top-5 producer. According to national energy agencies, the region has a potential of 26-38 billion barrels yet to be explored.

Because it is a mature basin, alternative technologies and approaches need to be applied, such as the advanced equipment required for the ultra-high-pressure, high-temperature (uHPHT) Culzean gas field. Projects like Culzean, which could supply 5% of the UK’s needs and balance Maersk Oil’s oil-dominated portfolio, and Johan Sverdrup, one of Norway’s largest ever discoveries, illustrate the region’s potential.

Maersk Oil is investing almost USD 5 billion in these two projects and together with another two that have recently come on stream – the UK’s Golden Eagle and the Tyra Southeast expansion in Denmark – they will contribute about 90,000 boepd of entitlement production.

“This is not a classic research institute”, says Bo Cerup-Simonsen, the head of the centre who used to run Maersk Maritime Technology.

“We want to engage deeply with DUC to build on existing knowledge and ideas, we also want to give the inventors and researchers the foundation and possibility to search out new ideas with the potential increased recovery”, Cerup-Simonsen adds.

“With the fascinating real-life opportunities and knowledge, combined with the engagement of the academia, we hope to bring more bright minds, insights and to the issue and the industry”.

Data gives oil clues

Because of its close links with the institute, Maersk Oil can be more comfortable in making some data available, which will give researchers more to work with, Tirsgaard explains.

At DTU, Smit flicks between screens as he compares and contrasts his multicolour model of the ancient seabed and fault systems with known forms on the present day seafloor, seeking clues to the presence of reservoir rocks, migration routes and thereby of oil.

‘Because human brains can pick up patterns more effectively than computers can, visualisation is important when identifying new potential production-­controlling heterogeneities, i.e. differences, in the rock in the reservoirs. This is achieved using seismic data in combination with well and core data’, Smit says.

“With this new knowledge we can subsequently build more detailed reservoir models that enable improved oil extraction”, he adds. “And we can investigate why one part of an oil field produces well, while another is producing poorly, based on the patterns we have become better at recognising”.