Chevron has teamed up with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab to bring space-age techniques to down-to-Earth energy exploration and production involving increasingly harsh environments.

Just as NASA has learned to work in the super-hot and fluctuating pressure environments in space and other planets, Chevron wants and needs to work in similar environments as energy exploration becomes more complicated.

“At JPL, we do unmanned exploration of space, using robotics and communications in very difficult environments,” said Dean Wiberg program manager in the commercial program office of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “All of those techniques for very harsh environments have applications for the equally harsh environments of oil and gas exploration.

“If you go down 20,000 feet there is a lot of temperature variation and high pressure,” he added. “This is very analogous to things we deal with in space.”

The JPL technologies of interest to Chevron include:

  • valves to control oil and gas flow from different geological formations in a well
  • single-phase pumping motors for continuous operation at the bottom of deep wells
  • sensors and electronics to deploy in exploration holes
  • integrated management systems for monitoring temperature, pressure and flow rates in deep wells and assessing the health of drilling operations

JPL will be looking at applications for its technology at Chevron in three sections: “Upstream,” which means exploration and production; “Mid-stream,” which means pipelines and transportation; and “Downstream, which means refining and marketing.

“Our engagement in the industry transcends all these sections,” Wiberg said.

The Chevron/JPL relationship is just one example of unique relationships NASA, JPL and CalTech have fostered with the commercial community that infuse its research into the private sector for commercial application, Wiberg said.

JPL is also working with private manufacturers to lower the weight of satellites, according to a recent article in National Defense magazine. The lab’s extensive knowledge of remote sensing is another area where the defense industry and the Pentagon could derive benefit. Others include Medical Technologies International, Inc., which is adapting space-developed video imaging for carotid artery analysis; Eagle Eyes, which uses NASA-developed methods to shield astronauts eyes from space radiation in sunglasses and welding curtains; and iRobot which is using technology (pictured above) originally developed for an early model Martian rover named Rocky-7 to manufacture robots for use in Iraq and Afghanistan to defeat Improvised Explosive Devices.

John McDonald, Chevron’s corporate vice president and chief technology officer, said he is pleased to be among NASA’s private industry partners.

“NASA and JPL are highly acclaimed national treasures, and Chevron is proud to collaborate with them to unlock new energy potential,” said . “This alliance is an opportunity to bridge public- and private-sector technology and research to discover oil and natural gas volumes that are found in deep remote reservoirs.”