The union of Rice University’s electrical and computer engineering department and major oil and gas producers are contributing to the birth to a new wave of technology capable of shedding more light on activity downhole.

Rice’s Integrated Systems and Circuits (RISC) laboratory has created a new microchip—about the size of a grain of sand—that rides with fracturing fluids downhole to track the movement of oil and gas through cracks and pores in the reservoir. When electromagnetic signals from the surface activate the microchips, real-time data is generated, enabling the creation of maps of hydraulically fractured formations.

“They can continuously monitor the downhole environment and report back to the surface. It’s like a smart proppant,” Aydin Babakhani, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at Rice University, told Hart Energy.

The microchips are made of silicon and are capable of withstanding temperatures of up to 175 degrees C. Plus, at few cents each, “You can build hundreds of thousands of them” for placement downhole and “it is not going to cost much,” compared to millions of dollars spent in wireline logging services, he said.

RISC recently announced its microchip research received a $2.4 million funding boost by a major oil producer. The funding, which is part of more than $5 million in research grants the RISC lab has earned within the last six months, comes as the oil and gas industry continues to seek innovative technologies in hopes of further driving down costs during one of the sector’s worst downturns.

“What this technology now allows producers to do is create intelligent oil and gas fields without a large capital expenditure, which is crucial when oil prices are hovering at $30 a barrel,” Babakhani, leader of the RISC lab, said in a statement. “The microchips map geologic formations in the same way doctors use medical imaging systems to map vessels in the body.”

When used with the prototype spectrometer developed in the Rice lab, the microchips could prove useful for flow assurance, for example, by finding and measuring pipe-clogging asphaltenes and any other chemicals capable of impeding the flow of oil and gas. The spectrometer, Babakhani told Hart during a phone interview, is similar to an MRI but it detects electrons instead of protons.

Field trials of the technique are set to begin before year-end. In designing the integrated microchips, Babakhani said researchers have what is necessary to test the microchips in HP/HT environments.

Using microchips for downhole oil and gas applications is another example of how the industry is turning to other sectors to improve operations in the oil patch. Silicon-based microchips have traditionally been used by the consumer electronics sector and for cellular applications among other uses. When learning more about the technologically challenging parts of the oil and gas business, Babakhani said there was a natural and mutual benefit between this segment of the electronics circuit business and oil and gas with university researchers—known for their high-impact technologies—being the innovative link.

“You don’t see a lot of electrical engineering departments getting involved in that but it is starting to grow, getting more and more people excited,” he added, pointing out the array of application possibilities—increasing the accuracy of logging, imaging, fracture mapping and monitoring fluids in downhole environments to name a few. “This is a new wave of technology that you are going to see coming out of electrical engineering departments.”

The lab is also working on technology that will detect hydrogen sulfide leaks after landing a $1.9 million grant. A miniature terahertz-based sensor is at the heart of this new technology being developed.

“Oil and gas companies are beginning to think more about advanced microchips that use technologies being developed for the Internet of Things, a network of devices embedded with sensors and network connectivity that enable objects to collect and exchange data,” Babakhani continued.

“There is going to be a lot more demand for oil and gas in the future, so the companies that invest in high-end R&D at universities are going to be the winners,” Babakhani said.

Velda Addison can be reached at