Technology

Inside an oil clinic

 By Marco Alfieri

Cat, super microscope, simulators. A day into labs in Bolgiano (near Milan) where forty years ago Eni decided to concentrate its research and technological development activities in the Oil & Gas sector. In order to characterise the rock and have sufficient data to construct a model of the reservoir more sophisticated analyses are required in a number of different laboratories. And this is one of the reasons why Bolgiano is so important

The latest carrots come directly from the wells in Congo. They must be fresh from their journey because they are still packed at the entrance to a large bright room, the labels written in marker in small aluminium boxes that look like bottles of champagne.

When you enter the labs in Bolgiano, the area of San Donato Milanese where forty years ago Eni decided to concentrate its research and technological development activities in the Oil & Gas sector, transferring them from the old square buildings of Agip Mining built in the Mattei period on Viale De Gasperi, the first thing you want to ask is why the name of a vegetable is used to refer to traces of rock containing hydrocarbons (we’ll find out in just a while).

In the laboratory bunkers, virtually the entire history of Eni’s oil business is crammed into 180 thousand crates of carrots. A large energy library that runs from the Agip of the nineteen-twenties and thirties to discovery of oil in the Po Valley and the most recent discoveries around the world, in Africa and Latin America. Bolgiano is an essential station, the oil “clinic” where, among other things, rocks are analysed, as if they were the muscles of football champions undergoing a medical before signing up and being presented to the fans.

In fact “carrot” is a free translation (even loose) from the English “core”. Let’s say a somewhat maccheronic translation: core = carrot. Someone obviously invented it many years ago and since then it has become the conventional term.

In essence, the carrot is a cylinder of rock which is removed during the drilling of a well. This is done using a tool, a core barrel, and a small diamond –headed chisel in the shape of a crown of about 20 centimetres.

Oil and gas flow in and through the rocks, they not found in an underground “cavern” (or under the sea) as people often imagine. This is why it is so complicated to extract them

The samples are used to define the lithology, age and characteristics of the rock. In particular, the aim is to understand the effective porosity (i.e. the extent to which the pores are interconnecting) and permeability (i.e. the ability of a rock formation to be traversed by fluid), decisive indicators for estimating the hydrocarbon potential of the well in question, how to develop it, the scale of the reserves and other important information for an “Energy company”.

Oil and gas flow in and through the rocks, they not found in an underground “cavern” (or under the sea) as people often imagine. This is why it is so complicated to extract them.

While this is being explained to me, a technician in his thirties with sudden, jerky movements is pulling a carrot from the casing to cut and begin the sedimentological description. This is a preliminary step. In order to characterise the rock and have sufficient data to construct a model of the reservoir more sophisticated analyses are required in a number of different laboratories. And this is one of the reasons why Bolgiano is so important for the six-legged dog.

From the outside it does not even look like a research centre. The main body of the building is organised around a series of courtyards, which here are called cloisters, built for security reasons one floor above ground. Inside three hundred researchers, technicians and staff work. The skills range from geology and geochemistry, to petroleum engineering and production, catalysis, the formulation of fuels and the upgrading of residues. The centre also provides assistance for wells, reservoir studies, the study of special fluids and the cements required for extraction.

Eni first historical oil (Cortemaggiore, 1955)

For example, in the electron microscope room 30 microns thick rock sections are made and 3D images elaborated. “We need these to understand what minerals the carrot is made of and how many ‘holes’ there are in the rock,” explains a woman with neatly combed bobbed hair, sitting at a computer studying data and enlargements. “I have been working at Bolgiano for twenty-six years, and I am a qualified technician”, but it’s as if she had “an honorary degree …”, claims a colleague that is sitting in front of the microscope.

To really understand the extent to which the “big eye” can enlarge the details of a rock (on average 5-6 thousand times the natural size), in the laboratory they play an amusing little game: they scan small dead insects that we all know the real size of. On the black screen of the computer, grasshoppers and flies suddenly appear like giant creatures in the most bizarre forms, monsters worthy of Pixar’s best creatives, pseudo coral reefs or mountain ranges imagined by pencil of Tim Burton. Some of these pictures in high resolution are on the walls of the room, if you close your eyes you can really let your imagination roam. I think of what my children would say if the saw these digital drawings between the fairy-tale and the fearful. I think they would love them.

On entering Bolgiano one expects to find aseptic, maybe roboticised laboratories, instead it seems more like a workshop where skills handed down through generations are nurtured. The human component and the passion of the people who work there are (still) decisive in the handling of sophisticated machinery. This is confirmed for me shortly after coming through the door by a technician who is retiring next week. “I joined Eni in 1974 as a chemist, and since 1987 I’ve been here at Bolgiano,” he tells me. Jokingly I say that he won’t be able to retire as the government has just decided the block the pensionable age. He smiles, his face lights up and for a second he even pretend to believe me. You can tell that Bolgiano was his life. It’s nice to go, but only up to a point …

In the next cloister you come to the “TAC” room, as everyone calls it. The characterisation of the rock must be completed with tomography to understand the sedimentary structures of the field. The CAT is a medical device, but it appears human in every way, like those we can find in our hospitals.

Big tomography completes the characterisation of the rocks

“First you do an x-ray then decide the area of the ​​carrot that the tomography will scan and with which we acquire its structure in 3D,” they explain. Thus begins the great journey into the carrot. And if it is necessary to analyse very small sections of rock that a normal CAT scan cannot see, then there is the micro-tomograph: a tool that allows you to isolate samples of a few centimetres from which high resolution images can be made. These two steps lead to the so-called density map. “The most dense areas are the most interesting for hydrocarbons.” They make it possible to estimate the quantity and potential of hydrocarbons present. In short, “a job for real petro-physicists …” jokes the technician, but only slightly.

Each operation here in Bolgiano has to be carefully considered. The data must be carefully and accurately be measured and analysed, given that the strategy of a large energy company will depend on the model that is created. “The extraction of cores, or carrots, is expensive: you have to consider production downtime, transport. Pulling out the drill battery and inserting the core barrel drill,” he explains. In some countries, to enhance the local knock-on impact, do not allo the carrots to cross the border. Consequently, Eni has trained engineers abd researchers on site to provide certification of the structures in the countries of extraction.

On entering Bolgiano one expects to find aseptic, instead it seems more like a workshop where skills handed down through generations are nurtured. The human component and the passion of the people are decisive in the handling of sophisticated machinery

The last station I visit is the “Well & Production Laboratory.” In practice, when Eni starts up an initial exploration well these are the rooms where the conditions of the field are reproduced. It is explained to me that the hydrocarbons may have problems during extraction or transport, and they can check solidification or occlusion phenomena. For example, the presence of excessive asphaltenes (normal paraffins) can determine the blocking or slowing down of production. Other issues can be caused by the presence of wax, hydrates, natural emulsions and the high viscosity of the fluid. Imagine underground pipes, maybe at freezing temperatures: during transport everything should flow as smoothly as oil. “Here we monitor and simulate these situations. We try to predict whether the new field may have such problems, if special assistance or the use of chemical thinners are required.” “It’s a bit like unblocking a kitchen sink,” I say.

“More or less,” says the technician, smiling. And while smiling he warily opens a small cabinet containing samples of asphaltenes and wax collected from fields around the world.

A rubber “pig”, used to clean a pipeline

Each test-tube has a story, a memory, an anecdote. He’s worked in the lab for thirty years, he knows the company and the world of oil inside out. He shows me a rubber “pig”, used to clean a pipeline, and explains why much of the terminology used in the oil industry comes directly from agriculture. “It‘s all the fault of the Texans: farmers who became oilmen. Even today, we still say to ‘cultivate an oil field…”

I could spend hours and hours listening to him, captivated by fascinating alembics and stories, but I have to get back to the office. As I leave and pass the display cases in the corridor again, on a few message boards I see flashing before me the entire history of Eni, the main minerals present in our country and in the world, the research tools, the first samples of oil, a wonderful gallery of photos in black and white (See photogallery below). But in the labs I have just visited there is also the company’s present and its future. Knowledge and know-how. And I, just to be sure, go back to San Donato with FCA 500 Enjoy

about the author
Marco Alfieri
Dad, husband, journalist. Content Strategy & Newsroom manager at Eni, Daily newsletter at Il Foglio. Former Editor in chief at Linkiesta.it. Previously I have worked at Il Sole 24 Ore and La Stampa.