Wavefront Technology and the oily science of earthquakes

An Edmonton firm borrows the rock-shattering power of tectonic shifts to tap black gold

February 01, 2011

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Brett Davidson, CEO and president of Wavefront Technology Solutions Inc.
Photography by 3ten

When the largest earthquake ever recorded in North America struck Alaska in 1964, production from oil wells in Alberta increased. Recreating that effect, first in the laboratory and later in the field, has consumed an Edmonton-based company for the past 28 years. “I can tell you developing a new technology for the oil industry is not for the faint of heart,” says Brett Davidson, the CEO and president of Wavefront Technology Solutions Inc.

Although Wavefront’s trademarked Powerwave System has a proven record of improving production rates by injecting liquids or super-critical gases into reservoirs, attracting companies to adopt the system has proved challenging. “The potential upside [of Powerwave] is huge, but there’s always some skittishness the first time,” says Davidson, noting that no one wants to be the first to adopt a new technology.

Though Wavefront has had clients since 2007, now, for the first time, the firm has made public one of the Canadian users of its Powerwave systems. Naming client TriAxon Oil Corp., a Calgary-based private energy firm that deployed six Powerwave systems in November 2010, is a potential endorsement that may help to propel Wavefront beyond a specialized science firm. The deal will enable disclosure of results to corroborate the inventor’s claims for the technology.

Davidson says the Powerwave system improves oil production rates and extends field life through a system that reaches previously inaccessible oil by working similar to a kink in a garden hose. “Powerwave is a game-changing technology,” Davidson believes.

Just as the advent of hydraulic fracturing technology taps into Alberta’s oldest oilfields, Wavefront also targets previously hard-to-reach reserves of “tight” oil through new technology – in this case an injection system. Conventional approaches to oil recovery using a fluid-flooding process work like a normal garden hose, says Davidson. Constant pressure flows from the injection location to the production location and follows the path of least resistance, meaning the fluid often penetrates poorly and does not reach all the oil.

Wavefront developed the Powerwave system from research built on understanding the effect of earthquakes on oil production. Earlier versions of the device were used on the surface, but now the technology operates down in the well. It works by rapidly opening and closing a valve, similar to the release of a kink in a garden hose or the beating of an animal heart. That release adds momentum to the liquid being injected and distributes the fluids more uniformly. Oil trapped in nooks and crannies is accessed by the pulsing liquid and moves towards production wells, ultimately increasing oil production.

For Jeff Saponja, president and chief executive of TriAxon Oil Corp., using technologies like Powerwave is what his “junior” energy firm is all about. “We’re not taking the risk as much on the exploration play anymore – we’re taking the risk on implementing newer technologies,” says Saponja, who believes so strongly in the technology that he joined Wavefront’s board of directors last July. “We prove this technology works in certain fields and that’s where we build value for our shareholders. That is the evolution of the junior model.”

Saponja says it’s been known for a long time that large amounts of oil remain in the ground. “Getting that oil out is all about new ideas, creative ideas, the adoption of new technologies and developing new technologies – that’s where the future of this province is,” Saponja says. “There isn’t going to be a lot of discoveries anymore. It’s going to be discoveries in innovations and new ideas that’s going to make the difference.”

Saponja identified Wavefront’s technology while looking for a product that would inject more water into sandstone reservoirs. He started using Powerwave in December 2009 in the Pembina Cardium field with TriAxon Resources Ltd., TriAxon’s predecessor. The company was acquired by Crescent Point Energy Corp. before Saponja had the chance to observe the performance of the tool.

TriAxon’s second incarnation, born last spring, recently installed six Powerwave systems in a Viking oil play in the Harmattan area. “With anything with water injection, you’re not going to see a response right away,” Saponja says. TriAxon is the first visible face of Wavefront’s clients, yet users have been quietly adopting Powerwave systems since September 2007. That’s when the company’s first commercial pilot project began in eastern Alberta.

The firm’s first client started out with three tools in September 2007 and is now using 63 of the devices. Wavefront’s clients may be reluctant to be identified, due to competitive advantage reasons, but Davidson believes his company is on to something.

Recent developments suggest the same. In October 2009 Wavefront signed a letter of intent with Pemex in Mexico. License and rental agreements are under discussion with Petroleum Development Oman and several operating companies around the globe. More than 100 Powerwave tools are currently in operation throughout North America, mostly concentrated in Alberta, Texas and California.

Davidson says Powerwave’s multiple tool designs work in various reservoir conditions. No two reservoirs are alike, but operators can expect production increases of 25 to 200 per cent for the wells influenced by the Powerwave-driven injection well – typically one Powerwave system is surrounded by four to six production wells – and an increase in ultimate recovery of two to five per cent.

While early adopters have been slow to step forward and identify themselves, Davidson is confident that Powerwave has a role to play in tapping depleted reservoirs. He says Wavefront stands to capitalize on new markets as companies turn to the Powerwave device to increase overall recovery without drilling new wells.

The company has an ambitious 10-year goal to capture 10 per cent of the market for breathing new life into old oilfields, which would mean a rollout of some 25,000 Powerwave tools. “We’re at that tipping point,” says Davidson. “We have enough clients and enough field evidence to demonstrate that this technology should be well used. We don’t see growing by five or 10 tools a year. We see doubling tools this year and doubling tools thereafter, because the results are just too compelling.”

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