Not the Same Old Drill
Petroleum-seeking USC researchers use high-tech tools to pin-point rock-bound gushers.
IF YOU THINK getting water from a stone is tough, imagine getting oil from a stone. That’s the challenge facing a group of USC petroleum engineers who hope to unlock the oil-production mysteries of geological structures called “heartbreak formations.”
The key lies in using three-dimensional mapping technology to study “chert,” a highly fractured rock containing vast quantities of oil.
In a project headed by Iraj Ershaghi, director of the USC School of Engineering’s petroleum engineering program, scientists are electronically mapping a section of the Monterey Formation, an oil-rich region running along the west coast of North America from Baja California all the way to Alaska, and then across the northern Pacific to Japan.
“The rock is like a broken piece of glass, and the oil is found only in the fractures,” says Ershaghi. “If you can intersect the fractures, you can make money.”
Some Monterey Formation wells have been known to produce several thousand barrels a day – gushers more typical of the Middle East than California, he says.

USC RESEARCHERS, in collaboration with oil-field operator Venoco Inc., are mapping an existing Santa Barbara County oil field as a test bed for new 3-D mapping techniques. The goal is to develop a mathematical model to determine where to drill.
The scientists are using a new “cross well seismic” technique that images the earth between existing wells. A USC-developed method for interpreting the changing patterns of pressure found in existing wells will contribute other useful information. The team will also use traditional seismic techniques.
After integrating the data with computational tools similar to those used in certain medical imaging systems, the researchers should end up with the equivalent of 3-D treasure maps.
“Because the Monterey Formation is so extensive, finding an effective method of recovering oil from it would have great potential rewards,” Ershaghi says.
The effort is part of a $8.4 million project funded in part by U.S. Department of Energy grants and investment from Venoco.

A Churlish Chimp

The world may be divided over whether Moe – the infamous 33-year-old West Covina chimp guilty of chomping on human digits – should go. But USC primatologist Craig Stanford has little doubt: chimps “reach a point of maturity at which continuing to keep them as pets is dangerous to them, to their owners and to the community,” he told the Los Angeles Times. Bowing to ape-approving pressure, the police dropped “harboring a menace to society” charges against Moe’s owners, but the chimp remains behind bars pending the outcome of his latest victims’ lawsuits.

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Photograph by Carl Studna / Illustration by Matthew Martin

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