Looking Inside the Well: An Interview With Visuray CEO Kambiz Safinya
Visuray is using its unique X-ray technology to improve downhole imaging.
JPT recently interviewed Kambiz Safinya, chief executive officer of Visuray, about his company’s technology and developments in the oil and gas industry. Before joining Visuray in 2011, he held several senior positions at Schlumberger. Safinya holds more than 20 patents and earned a doctorate in atomic physics from Harvard University.
Visuray was born out of a simple desire to help oil companies see inside their wells, thereby eliminating downtime on rigs where each moment of uncertainty translates to thousands of dollars lost. Conventional imaging in wells is fraught with issues, not least being the fact that most wells are filled with opaque fluid. The solution has been to use X-rays that pass through all types of well fluids and then to use the backscattered X-rays to produce 2D and 3D images of the downhole hardware, even in the most opaque and troublesome well environments.
With start-up funds from Statoil, BP, and Shell, we first developed the foundation for our technology. In 2005, the first successful laboratory image was taken through mud. Two years later in 2007, a prototype 4m long and 9 in in diameter was run in the Ullrigg test well just outside Stavanger. This prompted a second round of funding by our JIP partners. In early 2015, after 7 years and $90 million of investment, a 3 5/8-in commercial wireline tool, called the VR90, was successfully tested in a well in Germany.
How big is your company now?
Visuray comprises a team of 60 professionals from 20 countries, who have developed the world’s first downhole X-ray platform. Visuray has developed cutting-edge technology and proprietary processes to deliver electronically produced radiation in an oil well at unprecedented levels of brightness in a perfectly safe manner. Coupled with the most sensitive high-temperature, solid state X-ray detectors, Visuray can see and diagnose problems inside oil wells with millimetric accuracy. The first commercial product stemming from the downhole platform is the VR90 downhole X-ray diagnostic tool. It has proven itself in the field with 100% successful jobs conducted in North America, Europe, and the Middle East since 2015.
What’s next for Visuray?
After doing some 20 jobs from North America to the Middle East, the VR90 has reached a significant level of maturity and proven success, and the downhole X-ray platform (DXP) is now proving capable of providing a range of services. In the last 6 months, the VR90 has done 10 times as many jobs as it did in the previous 6-month period. So, you can say the uptake is increasing and is now limited only by the number of tools in our fleet. These tools are now being built at our product center in Katy, Texas and we are ramping up production to be able to service the demand in the market.
At the same time, we signed a landmark joint development agreement with ConocoPhillips and Statoil last December 2017 to develop the first non-acoustic cement evaluation tool, which we call the VR360. This tool will produce a CT scanner type image of the well and its environment in full 3D and shall be integrated with an ultrasonic array to provide a multistring assessment of the well integrity with unprecedented lower levels of uncertainty. We anticipate that this service will alter the way oil companies ensure well integrity during the construction phase, the way they maintain producing wells, and will save them significant expenses as they safely abandon their wells. These two new products are due to be available in the market in 2019 and 2020.
Right now, most of our activity is in the Permian Basin, although things are starting to pick up elsewhere, such as in the Middle East and Russia.
Describe the significance of the downhole X-ray platform.
Everything spins off of that platform. We have developed the platform because that is what you need to build any kind of X-ray tool for whatever application you can conceive of. We built our first commercial tool on this platform, the VR-90, and it has been commercial since 2015.
Previously, we were focused on Norway and the North Sea because that is where we engineered the first tools, but during the downturn, the activity just died. Nobody was drilling wells; nobody was repairing wells. We had to go somewhere where there was more activity. So we are in Midland, Texas in the Permian Basin and expanding now that oil prices are up.
The significance of the platform is that when you have a producing well, you have to maintain that asset, and that asset life is decades. You cannot maintain production without maintenance. Production goes down for all kinds of reasons, and the only way to know is to go down there and look. You can’t send a camera; it will see OK in a gas well but not an oil well. But an X-ray will always see.
It took a long time to build this tool, and a lot of money, but we’ve cracked the nut because we don’t do anything else. And once you know how to do it, then you can think of all these applications.
What were some of the first applications?
Our first customer in the US was Devon. It was trying to pull a pipe out of a well, an old pipe, and it broke. They tried to fish it but couldn’t. So then they decided to mill it but that didn’t work either and they could not figure out why. The wireline company sent a camera down there and couldn’t see anything. Then they flushed a few hundred barrels of fresh water to see if they could clean around that point. So finally they decided to run our tool.
So we ran it in the hole. Just went down, boom. And the reason they couldn’t get the pipe out was because when the milling tool went into the tube, it compressed the metal. The dimensions of the tube were no longer true to the original dimensions. So they had the wrong size fishing thing. The point is, when you’ve got something that is miles down there, you can’t see it. And when we look with our tool, we actually give all the dimensions. It’s not only in 3-D but we give the dimensions to millimeter accuracy. It comes up on the computer and the engineer can click on any point on that image, and it gives the engineer the 3-dimensional coordinates. Today we are running a slimmer (3 3/8”) version of the tool, the VR90s, and have completed 32 jobs around the world with 100% success rate.
What other applications do you see going forward?
By taking that exact same tool, if you take the camera out, it’s like a light bulb. You light up the X-ray and it lights up in all directions. What we do is put radioactive shielding with tungsten, make a conical, and we shield it everywhere except for a cone going downward. So it is now like a flashlight illumining in front of the tool. We can produce a 3-D reconstruction of the whole pipe including the inner diameter and outer diameter. There are thousands of old, corroded pipes producing oil through them all around the world, and they have scale built up on the inside.
You can’t do what we’re doing with any other technology. It’s impossible. But we can go in, just by now taking that bottom part out, putting in a new orientation of detectors and collimators.
We are also working with ConocoPhillips and Statoil to fund the development of novel downhole technology that can evaluate the integrity of cement behind multiple casing strings in oil and gas wells. The new technology, called VR360 Diagnostic Cement Evaluation Tool, will produce a full 3D cement map and traditional ultrasonic measurements, which are sensitive to the cement bond between the cement and the inner casing wall. We originally developed the VR360 for deepwater wells, but we are also looking at its use in abandoned wells in old fields.
What is your current view of the industry?
We are very optimistic about the future as oil prices have firmed and companies are beginning to realize that it has drastically underspent the past few years and that that will have a significant impact on supply.
The mood in the oil industry is vastly different from what it was even a year ago. Oil companies are once again willing to repair old wells and drill new ones. They are looking for technology to enable them to improve efficiency while they reinvest in their business, and Visuray is uniquely positioned to help them achieve their objectives.