Finding fault

Finding fault

July 15, 2007

In much the same way that cracks appear when ice shifts on a frozen lake, fault lines form as the Earth’s crust moves slowly back and forth. This movement creates spaces in the Earth’s crust that serve as reservoirs for oil and gas.

Jeremy Hall—a Memorial University researcher in Newfoundland—is using a 3D visualization lab and powerful computers to find these fault lines and draw a comprehensive picture of the ocean floor’s geology. Mapping these fault lines off the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador is helping to unlock the vast potential of offshore oil reserves. Until recently, researchers only had part of the geological picture—patching together incomplete images of an area and making assumptions about what lay between each missing piece.

“It was as if a doctor had to rely on a cross-section of your hips and shoulders and then fill in the rest of the picture. Today our lab offers the equivalent of a 3D picture of the whole patient,” says Hall.

These pictures are created from a rich set of data produced by hydrophones—devices that measure the echoes created by sending high pressure airwaves to the ocean floor. Different echoes indicate different geological formations. The hydrophones are towed back and forth across an area of ocean in the same way a person pushes a lawnmower methodically back and forth across a lawn.

The data are turned into pictures by powerful computers and projected onto a screen about eight metres wide and two metres high. Observers wear 3D stereo glasses to interact with the onscreen images.

Hall’s 3D theatre is proving popular with researchers and industry alike. Canada’s oil and gas industry plays a central role in our economy and Hall’s work is particularly valuable for smaller oil and gas companies who don’t have the resources to carry out large scale exploration on their own.

“The more we can show how and where reservoirs of oil and natural gas are located, the more it will stimulate investment from the private sector and enable smaller companies to make targeted investments,” says Hall.