October 18, 2022 by Andrew Seto, VP Technology, Energi Simulation
Forty-four years ago in 1978, a research group, led by Dr. Khalid Aziz at the University of Calgary and with the support of the Alberta government and major oil and gas companies, was tasked with developing a robust reservoir simulator that would be capable of modelling complex thermal recovery processes for the massive oil sands resources in Alberta, Canada. With laboratory and field data from many hydrocarbon development projects becoming available for ground-truthing over the years, the thermal-hydrological-mechanical-chemical (THMC) reservoir simulator has been continuously improved to provide realistic production performance and reserves forecasts for not only oil sands resource plays, but also other oil and gas exploration and development projects. This simulator formed as the backbone of Computer Modelling Group, that was later spun off in 1997 to form a publicly traded company in CMG Ltd. and a not-for-profit organization named Foundation CMG (rebranded Energi Simulation in 2017). The CMG suite of simulation tools and other similar reservoir simulation software available in the market today also find applications in nuclear waste disposal, ground disturbance, underground energy storage, and other subsurface engineering projects.
As the world is striving to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, would the THMC simulators still be useful for other types of energy resource modelling beyond oil and gas reservoir simulation? The answer is a resounding ‘Yes’, as reservoir simulators have evolved to such sophistication that they could handle multi-phase, multi-physics, and multi-scale systems for robust and realistic modelling. The challenge has always been having sufficient and reliable laboratory/field data to help ascertain reservoir parameters and/or develop new algorithms for proper modelling. The introduction of machine learning and artificial intelligence has also helped enhance simulator capabilities.
Pivoting to geothermal energy modelling would require reservoir simulators to have improved characterization of rock and fluids, their behaviour and interaction at elevated temperature and pressure levels. Transport mechanisms are more complex with reactive flow of fluids and minerals in enhanced geothermal systems (EGS), while formation thermal conductivity variations would be important for the evaluation of advanced geothermal systems (AGS) that employ closed-loop configurations. Where hydraulic fracturing is employed in EGS operations, potential induced seismicity and caprock integrity ought to be addressed. For geothermal energy to become a more competitive renewable energy source, the well drilling costs would need to be reduced, especially when targeting deep superhot rock formations. Research to improve drilling and well construction models and their integration with reservoir simulation should be helpful.
Carbon capture, utilization, and storage (CCUS) and underground hydrogen storage (UHS) are also two main thrusts to help the world to decarbonize. Here, THMC simulation tools could be adopted to provide insights into the technical, economical, and environmental feasibilities of these projects. Compositional modelling, with particular attention to CO2/hydrogen phase behaviour and interaction with the formation rock and fluids, and multi-component/multi-phase fluid flow under various reservoir conditions, would be important. CO2/hydrogen injectivity and seal integrity are also key considerations. Since there is a scarcity of adequate storage sites and access, THMC simulation, when integrated with surface facilities modelling, could help optimize the use of storage sites and capacities, as well as support the designing of infrastructures.
Our Energi Simulation Research Chairs’ current focus is on utilizing and/or developing modelling tools to help address the aforementioned technical and economic challenges, in support of global energy transition. With collaboration among the industry, academia, government, and other stakeholders, we all look forward to building a more sustainable energy future together.