ARC Plug: A journey from inspiration to commercialization

In-house developed technology

In a novel approach to address the challenge of losing drilling fluids and mud in drilling operations, we are exploring the potential of local date tree seeds and fibers as loss circulation materials.

The journey of Saudi Aramco’s Exploration and Petroleum Engineering Center – Advanced Research Center’s (EXPEC ARC) date seed-based loss circulation material, ARC Plug, spans a full cycle of several phases from a simple idea all the way to commercialization.

The journey from inspiration, to research, scale up, field testing, and onward to a commercial product addresses the challenge of losing drilling fluids and mud in drilling operations, and is filled with people and local partnerships who brought this idea to life.

This new technology is an example of EXPEC ARC researchers’ commitments to come up with innovative solutions that will capitalize on our local products and replace imported materials.

The inspiration

Chapter 1

The story began in September 2015 when Md. Amanullah, senior researcher and leader of EXPEC ARC’s Drilling Fluids Focus Area, was spending a quiet weekend at his home in Dhahran tending to his backyard garden where he cultivates many native plants, including a large date palm.

While harvesting and enjoying a few of his dates, he was inspired by the idea that the leftover seeds could be a possible alternative to the nut shells that were commonly used to manufacture drilling fluid products.

This gardening pastime triggered the researcher’s inherent curiosity to examine the use of various waste components of the date palm tree — pruning waste, leaflets, fruits caps, and deceased date trees.

He eagerly took this idea along with a few samples to his lab the next morning for testing.

Early testing

Chapter 2

Once at the EXPEC ARC lab, the testing went better than Amanullah could have expected, as the date seeds revealed properties that met, and even exceeded the imported nut shells.

He then researched for additional local sources to expand his preliminary tests, which led him to the Date Research Institute in al-Hasa. The institute was very receptive, and it arranged for a visit by Amanullah’s team, during which it gathered various date seeds from different types of trees and regions to replicate and broaden the testing phase.

The team discovered that all varieties of date seeds fell into a tight range of mechanical properties — all of which were suitable for manufacturing a new product. Based on such early work, a patent was filed to protect the idea for future development as a potential business.

Amanullah demonstrates the suspension capability of ARC Plug in a drilling mud. No settlement of particles after six hours of static aging demonstrates a good suspension property. 

Getting buy-in

Chapter 3

While explaining the project to a young researcher, Amanullah asked, “What are the top two products that Saudi Arabia produces, consumes, and exports?”
The young researcher replied, “Crude oil and dates?”

Amanullah continued: “What if we take the waste materials of the date industry and inject that into oil wells to solve long-lasting drilling problems?”

The rest of the story is history.

Amanullah emphasized that such a new date seed-based technology can simultaneously provide:

  • A solution to the disposal problem of the date palm industry.
  • Localized products for the oil and gas industry.
  • And can also act as a powerful catalyst for the growth of local industries and enterprises to provide a sustainable source of supply of locally developed products.

“It was absolutely a dream to link both industries together and use something we throw away every day, such as date seeds, to help solve different oil drilling challenges such as drilling fluids losses into drilled formations,” said Mohammad Arfaj, who worked with Amanullah to take the technology from the laboratory and conduct tests in real drilling wells.

The first test conducted showed remarkable performance and determined that the compound effectively seals rock formations in oil and gas wells while drilling, and was therefore the start of the official journey of ARC Plug development.

Collecting local dates is a time-honored practice. Cleaning and removal of old leaves generates a huge volume of pruning waste, which in turn can be used by Saudi Aramco in the drilling process. 

To the field

Chapter 4

After reviewing the technology, the team identified local strategic partners to process and produce date seeds in bulk according to the required particle sizes and specifications. After that, the new product needed to see the light and go outside the laboratory and factory to the real world — the oil field.

Arfaj worked closely with competent drilling engineers and drilling fluids specialists to identify potential candidate wells whose conditions are applicable for ARC Plug. After selecting three candidate wells, then came the moment of pumping this “valuable” material downhole.

In the first field trial, the rig team drilled a few thousand feet deep when partial drilling fluids losses were encountered. Immediately, ARC Plug was mixed in the active drilling fluids system. It quickly started doing its job and successfully reduced the scope of the drilling fluids loss problem. Moreover, the product was tested in the other two wells while drilling different formations in different conditions. It met all the set success criteria.

With the product tested and verified as a proven solution, it was then time to turn the hard earned lab work into a reliable and readily available solution for drilling.

A local factory worker checks the quality of the recently collected date seeds. From this point, the dates will be properly cleaned and washed to produce high quality ARC Plug products. 

The business value proposition

With the new patent created from Amanullah’s research and a confirmed supply of date seeds that currently are in need of disposal, it was now possible to begin manufacturing this routinely used product. This is a technology that is well-aligned with one of drilling’s biggest challenges — lost circulation.

A rigorous economic analysis was performed to confirm the economics based on cost of materials, and a proposed manufacturing method was performed. The analysis confirmed that an in-Kingdom strategic partner will enable Saudi Aramco to manufacture ARC Plug at a reduced price (compared to nut shells) while at the same time providing a boost to the local economy.

After being qualified for routine use, it was now necessary to establish a formal business contract with a strategic partner to be able to produce field quantities. Multiple companies were analyzed before selecting both the most appropriate and capable for licensing the intellectual property required to produce, sell and use ARC Plug technology.

Recognition and rewards

Chapter 5

The multiple successes of ARC Plug have resulted in international recognition as a practical and effective technology solution. The technology won the 2017 Technical Innovation of the Year by the Oil & Gas and Refining & Petrochemical Middle East judges.

The invention also drew significant national and international attention of the professional and business communities due to its economical, technical, and social impact in several national newspapers, as well as international oil and gas industry publications.

Saudi Aramco has come a long way in upstream chemical research and the evolution from simple evaluation to fully fledged chemical development, with hundreds of ideas and patents transformed into products that were then commercialized. During this transition, the developed chemicals have been either a replacement of currently used chemicals at lower cost or a creation of new innovative solutions and synthesis — all of which capitalize on the Kingdom’s local resources.