Up-close tour of North Dakota’s underground geology

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Up-close tour of North Dakota’s underground geology

The rock is 500 million years old. The gem-quality sheen is brand new.

So is the detailed digital image of this core, which was extracted two miles underground from a site in western North Dakota as part of an oil exploration venture.

"This image is part of an innovative research library being developed right here at the University of North Dakota's Harold Hamm School of Geology and Geological Engineering," said Hesham El-Rewini, dean of the College of Engineering & Mines and the force behind the digitization project.

El-Rewini sees this new core image library revolutionizing how students and industry will develop knowledge and understanding of oil and other geologic resources in the state. UND and Houston, Texas-based PetroArc International are developing the new digital Continental Resources High Resolution Virtual Core Library project, El-Rewini says.

PetroArc representatives say that, following many years of high-tech research and development, the company produced a method of digitally scanning cores, thin sections, plugs and drill cuttings that can be viewed via computer utilizing their CORSystem software.

"For a number of years, our students and faculty have been utilizing the Wilson Laird Core & Sample Library's core library in upper division classes and research projects," said El-Rewini. "With the rapid expansion of the oil industry in the western part of state, that library has become an even more important resource. But to access that resource, people have to physically come here and actually examine the cores and samples"

Harold Hamm, founder and CEO of Continental Resources, told El-Rewini that he regularly used the Laird Core & Sample Library when he was getting started in the petroleum exploration and extraction business.

"Mr. Hamm himself indicated to me how valuable this resource was to him when he started his career," El-Rewini said.

"The digital core library images will help our students not just with much easier access, but also with software tools that will allow them to manipulate those images," El-Rewini said. "They will be able to extract a lot more information much more easily."

The second key advantage to the digital core image library is remote access.

"You'll be able to access this image library from anywhere," El-Rewini said, noting that the details how to make that happen, such as who gets access and whether it'll be free or not, still are being reviewed. "The beauty of this project is that we're also engaging students as an integral part ? PetroArc is hiring UND students to prepare the samples for digital imaging."

Right now only certain cores in the Core & Sample Library are being selected for processing and imaging, according to Joseph Hartman, Chester Fritz Distinguished Professor and director of the Harold Hamm School of Geology & Geological Engineering. He's also heading up the project.

There's a lot more to this project than point-and-shoot photography, as good as that's gotten over the last few years.

"It's a painstaking two-part process," says Hartman.

First, each core has to be meticulously sanded and polished to a finish that rivals top-end marble counter tops. That takes many hours of work with sand, grinding wheels of various fine and finer grits and buffing wheels. The time it takes varies according to the composition of the cores

Then a PetroArc digital imaging specialist, trained in academic photography and digital image processing, positions the specially prepared core precisely in a tray. After setting a sophisticated digital camera with a macro lens, the photographer scans the core and then processes and archives each image. Images for a core are merged making for a very large file.

"Every rock behaves differently," says Hartman. "So it takes varying times to process and scan each core. The result is an extremely accurate image that's much easier to access than the original core. Discussing the subsurface geology of the Williston Basin of North Dakota in class will be much easier with access to these images."

"Basically, we will be able to 'tour' the deep underground geology of North Dakota, and not just for oil, but for other resources, as well," said Hartman, an internationally known expert in prehistoric mollusks and the formations they're found in. "Now wherever possible, these digital images will be incorporated into as many geology courses and labs as possible.

"There's a lot of really cool life and features produced by life preserved in the cores, and the Virtual Core Library will help us see and understand more of the record."

Juan Miguel Pedraza University & Public Affairs writer

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