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Today, oil explorers image reservoirs of oil using seismic waves, generated by explosions or big vibrator machines. Thousands of sensors distributed around a oil field detect reflected waves, and from this information computers generate a three-dimensional image. They use low frequencies that penetrate miles into the earth, but the tradeoff for distance is low resolution.

One way to improve imaging is with better algorithms for sorting signal from noise in sensor measurements, something computer scientists at MIT are working on. For example, as seismic waves encounter geological formations, they can change form to a type of wave, called a sheer wave, that can produce more detailed information about a reservoir, if information about these waves can be sorted out from other incoming signals.

Also, less expensive drilling technology may make it feasible to use more sensors or vibration sources underground, closer to the oil, which makes it possible to use higher frequencies. Additional holes could also be used for pressure and chemical sensors. Jefferson Tester, professor of chemical engineering at MIT, has demonstrated a drilling technique that replaces mechanical drill bits with a flame for breaking apart the rock with heat. The technique can be more energy efficient and faster than mechanical drilling, and perhaps more importantly does not require that a drill bit be periodically raised to the surface and replaced – a major reason why drilling costs now rise exponentially with the depth of a well, Tester says. While his technology is not yet ready for full-scale deployment, in addition to allowing placement of more sensors, it could potentially allow energy oil companies to drill holes much deeper for economically recovering oil.

Future innovative technologies could include new methods for breaking the adhesion forces that trap oil inside tiny pores in rock. These include technologies for focusing acoustic and electromechanical energy to disrupt the surface forces between oil and rock; new chemicals and even microbes could also help. The microbes would work in part by digesting the long hydrocarbons of thick oil into shorter, lighter ones that flow more readily.

If the new technologies prove out, the results could be dramatic. “In the U.S., there could be as much as 40 billion barrels that could be produced, and global the figures are much, much more,” Toksöz says. The 40 billion barrels is about four times the amount thought to be recoverable from the controversial plan to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

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