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Earth scientists go 3-D with $3.4 million software gift

STANFORD -- A group of Stanford geologists and geophysicists spent the better part of two weeks out of the sun this summer, hunched over high-performance computer workstations in the basement of Mitchell Hall. They were back in school, taking training to use new software that could change the way they do geology and geophysics.

The software, worth $3.4 million, was donated to the School of Earth Sciences by Geoquest, a Houston-based unit of the international oil field services company, Schlumberger Inc. It combines seven different software packages used in the oil industry for tasks ranging from interpretation of geologic and geophysical data, to engineering of oil wells and reservoirs, to maps and three-dimensional visualizations.

Its first users at Stanford have plans to take the software's capabilities beyond the oil fields, to help interpret their observations about the changing structure of the earth. Geology Professors David Pollard and Atilla Aydin and their students normally work with data collected at the surface of the earth, studying rock formations firsthand at spectacular sites like Arches National Park in Utah. Geophysics Professor Simon Klemperer normally works with seismic images to record the clashing of continental plates.

With the new software, Pollard and Aydin plan to take their knowledge and use it to visualize underground formations that seismologists so far cannot detect. And Klemperer, the seismologist, hopes to take his continental pictures into the third dimension.

Starting with the fall quarter, the new software also will be put to use in the classroom. In the Geophysical Information Services (GIS) Lab, Klemperer will teach students to work with the three-dimensional seismic data that oil companies use to seek out hard-to-find reserves of oil. Most oil discoveries now come from analyzing how the oil flows underground in three dimensions, Klemperer said, but few universities can offer students the chance to learn 3-D computer modeling.

"Finally, we can teach even undergraduates what they need to walk into the oil industry," he said.

That may benefit Geoquest in return, as some of the brightest new minds in the industry are trained with the company's software.

A marriage of two disciplines

Aydin and Pollard plan to use the software to add new detail to profiles of oil reservoirs, aquifers and other underground regions.

The two are co-directors of the Rock Fracture Project, known for its models of the behavior of fractures and faults. The models are based on careful observation of structures at the surface of the earth.

"We know what kind of [geological] structures are near a fault, what orientations they take, what hydraulic properties they may have, what variations to expect if the rock type changes," Aydin says.

This is valuable information for planners and engineers. For example, because faults and fractures act as either barriers or conduits for fluid flow, Rock Fracture Project models are used to predict how oil or water will flow within an underground reservoir, or whether contaminants can be blocked from leaking out of an underground storage site.

Now, Aydin and Pollard plan to use the new software to integrate their rock fracture data with seismic profiles of faults deep below the surface. Geophysicists use seismic profiles to make images of large structures within the earth, like earthquake faults. In what Aydin describes as "a marriage of two disciplines," he and Pollard plan to use their structural geologists' knowledge about rocks and how they fracture to construct detailed models of the small-scale structures near the faults.

They've already completed one model using borrowed 3-D software: It shows how the rocks are shaped and fractured in an oilfield under the North Sea.

"Doctors used to only be able to thump on the outside of your body and try to feel what was going on inside," Pollard says. "Now they have MRI scans to see the interior. Structural geologists now are beginning to be able to exploit the technology of seismic data to do the same thing beneath the earth's surface."

Other faculty members also have their eyes on the new software. Geophysics chair Mark Zoback has plans to use the software to help with his studies of subtle earth movements measured from boreholes drilled deep into the earth.

Klemperer is excited about the 3-D imaging capabilities. In his research, he takes "sonograms" of the earth, bouncing sound waves off rocks several kilometers below the surface to map out seismic images of overlapping continental plates. Now, he says that he and his students will begin to collect data to show how those plate junctures intersect in three dimensions.

"In principle, we do that already. In practice, this will make it so much easier to interpret our data in three dimensions that we'll do a lot more of it," he said.

To describe how 3-D visualization might help scientists better understand the structure of the earth, Klemperer contrasts it with the usual two-dimensional seismic profile. Like looking at the cross-section of a multi-layered frosted cake, the profile shows layer upon layer of different types of rock. With three-dimensional software and enough data, those layers can be "unstacked" so that each appears on the computer monitor as if suspended in air. Follow the horizontal surface of a single layer and the viewer quickly discovers that it is not really flat ­ there are bumps and dips and a sharp downward turn as it folds into a faultline.

Students learning to follow a single horizontal surface on a traditional seismic profile must trace a line along many lengths of blueline paper, following the line through faults and declivities and folding the ends of the paper to match up the horizon lines. "With the computer, you 'fold' the paper on the screen," Klemperer says.

To use the Geoquest software, the School of Earth Sciences raised an additional $30,000 for licensing and training fees and equipment for the GIS lab. "My hope is that we will integrate the Geoquest software with our usage of software donated to the lab by other companies, things like Intergraph, ARC-Info and ER-Mapper," Klemperer said.

He says that resources of the lab are not limited to earth scientists. "The School of Earth Sciences has made a commitment to keep the resources of the GIS lab open to anyone in the university," he says. Already the lab has been used by researchers as diverse as a geophysics student calculating lava flow in Hawaii, an ecologist mapping the habitat of an endangered butterfly and a historian tracking out a complex series of events.



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