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Nuclear logging while drilling

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Gamma ray measurements have been made while drilling since the late 1970s. These measurements are relatively inexpensive, although they require a more sophisticated surface system than is needed for directional measurements. Log plotting requires a depth-tracking system and additional surface computer hardware.


Applications have been made in both reconnaissance mode, where qualitative readings are used to locate a casing or coring point, and evaluation mode. Verification of proper measurement while drilling (MWD) gamma ray detector function is normally performed in the field with a thorium blanket or an annular calibrator.[1]

The main differences between MWD and wireline gamma ray curves are caused by spectral biasing of the formation gamma rays and logging speeds.[2]

Neutron porosity (Φ) and bulk-density (ρb) measurements in logging while drilling (LWD) tools are often combined in one sub or measurement module. Reproducing wireline-density accuracy has proven to be one of the most difficult challenges facing LWD tool designers. Tool geometry typically consists of a cesium gamma ray source (located in the drill collar) and two detectors, one at a short spacing from the source and one at a long spacing from the source. Gamma counts arriving at each of the detectors are measured. Count rates at the receivers depend upon the density of the media between them. Density measurements are severely affected by the presence of drilling mud between the detectors and the formation. If more than 1 in. of standoff exists, the tendency of the gamma rays to travel the (normally less dense) mud path and “short circuit” the formation-measurement path becomes overwhelming. The gamma ray short-circuit problem is solved by placing the gamma detectors behind a drilling stabilizer. With the detector mounted in the stabilizer, in gauge holes, the maximum mud thickness is 0.25 in., and the mean mud thickness is 0.125 in. Response of the tool is characterized for various standoffs in various mud weights, and various formations and corrections are applied.

Placing the gamma detector in the stabilizer does have some drawbacks. Detector placement can affect the directional tendency of the BHA. In horizontal and high-angle wells, in which the density measurement is most frequently run, the stabilizer can sometimes hang up and prevent weight from being properly transferred to the bit. It is important to note that in enlarged boreholes, gamma detectors deployed in the drilling stabilizer may not accurately measure density.

Assuming that an 8½-in. bit and an 8¼-in. density sleeve are used and the tool is rotating slowly in the hole, the average standoff is 0.125 in., and the maximum standoff is 0.25 in. If, however, the borehole enlarges to 10 in., the average standoff increases to 0.92 in., and the maximum standoff increases to 1.75 in. In big hole conditions, very large corrections are required to obtain an accurate density reading. An example of an erroneous gas effect using older-generation neutron density devices in an enlarged 9 7/8-in. hole is shown in Fig. 1.

LWD gamma ray tools

LWD gamma ray tools typically embed the detector inside of a drill collar. Two to three inches of steel are interposed between the detectors and the formation. That steel acts as an energy-cutoff filter, passing high-energy gamma rays better than lower-energy ones. As a result, these tools are more sensitive to the high-energy potassium gamma rays than the lower-energy uranium and thorium. The API gamma ray unit defined in the University of Houston facility fails to recognize that different gamma ray energy distributions (arising from different relative concentrations of potassium, uranium, and thorium in the formation, as well as different borehole conditions and detector response functions) can cause the same counting rate at the detector in the borehole. In addition, the borehole diameter of the calibration pit is too small to accommodate most measurement-while-drilling (MWD) tools. To allow direct comparison with familiar wireline gamma ray logs, MWD contractors have attempted to transfer the API unit to the new (and larger-diameter) spectral gamma ray calibration pits, also at the U. of Houston. Because of the differences in spectral response between wireline and MWD tools, there is no unambiguous way to transfer the API unit to MWD tools. This problem is not unique to MWD tools, but because of their suppressed low-energy sensitivity, it is particularly severe for them.

To offset these effects, most MWD gamma ray tools are spectral gamma ray tools that divide the spectrum into 256 channels downhole. The precise use of these windows is still evolving, but they clearly can be used for K-U-Th determination. In one case, the shielding provided by the drill collar is turned to an advantage to produce a directional gamma ray log. As the tool rotates in the hole, it looks in different directions. At a dipping bed boundary with gamma ray contrast, such as when entering or leaving a shale bed, the gamma ray reading oscillates as the tool first sees the bed on the top of the hole and then the bottom. This fact can be used to estimate the angle at which the drillstring is striking the bed and to keep drilling within a bed.

Gamma ray logging is the one case in which the difference in design between wireline and LWD tools is significant. Wireline tools use a skid-mounted pad that is pressed directly against the borehole wall. The pad follows hole rugosity, at least at the 1- to 2-ft vertical frequency level, minimizing the tool standoff. Because this is a very shallow measurement, minimizing the thickness of the layer of mud and borehole fluid between the tool and the formation is very important. The location of the sensor in the rotating drill collar precludes pad mounting of the LWD gamma ray density sensor. Thus, direct contact with the formation is eliminated, and a large and variable mud layer is introduced into the volume of investigation. Two different approaches are used to compensate for this mud effect. One design places the source and detector in stabilizer blades. These blades displace the drilling mud, providing a nearly direct path to the formation for the probing gamma rays. Because a stabilizer can steer the bit, tool subs using them must be run several joints behind the bit to maintain directional control. The blades are also subject to wear that can affect the tool calibration. A focused source and careful detector-window design further minimize borehole effects. Measurements generally use tool rotation to correct for hole-size variations. Spectral detection of scattered gamma rays is exploited in combination with low-density windows to produce a PE measurement. In an alternate approach to solving the mud problem, multiple detectors are placed radially around the collar, and the results are averaged to remove mud effects when the mud density is known. Of course, the tool may undergo complex motion, requiring a more sophisticated algorithm. This procedure can be misled by tool precession in nearly vertical holes.

Data aquisition

Varying approaches have been developed to obtain accurate density measurements in enlarged boreholes. Most widely accepted are the azimuthal density method, the rapid-sampling method, and the constant-standoff method. Azimuthal density links the counts to an orientation of the borehole by taking regular readings from a magnetometer.[3] When this method is used, the wellbore (which is generally inclined) is divided into multiple segments (often 4, 8, or 16). Incoming gamma counts are placed into one of the bins. From this, the segment densities and an average density are obtained. A coarse image of the borehole can be obtained when beds of varying density arrive in one segment before another. Azimuthal density can be run without stabilization, but it relies on the assumption that standoff is minimal in the bottom quadrant of the wellbore.

Rapid sampling

Another method is referred to as rapid sampling. In this method, statistical techniques are applied to rapid samples taken on incoming gamma counts. When the tool is rotating and there is a significant difference between mud weight and formation density, there will be an unexpectedly high standard deviation. This is used to create limits for a high- and low-count rate bin. The total counts arriving in the low-count rate bin are used to calculate a rapid sample density.

Ultra sonic calipers

Another method of obtaining density in enlarged boreholes relies on the constant measurement of standoff using a series of ultrasonic calipers.[4] A standoff measurement is made at frequent intervals, and a weighted average is calculated. High weight is given to gamma rays arriving at the detector when the standoff is low, and low weight is given to those gamma rays that arrive when the standoff is high (Fig. 2). This method attempts to replicate the wireline technique of dragging a tool pad up the side of the borehole. The constant-standoff method can also be applied to neutron porosity tools.

Neutron-porosity log tools

Although all Measurement while drilling (MWD) devices share the basic wireline configuration of a neutron source and two differently spaced detectors, the drillstring environment forces changes. A pad-mounted tool is not possible, increasing potential borehole effects. He-3 detectors with long central wires, the standards in wireline tools, are sensitive to the effects of vibration that can cause false counts. One service company uses a new neutron detector, an Li-6 scintillator. Because this detector can respond to gamma rays as well as neutrons, spectral processing is required to strip out the gamma ray counts that show up as low-height pulses. The detector absorbs essentially all incident thermal neutrons, resulting in a high counting efficiency, but the metal hatch over the detector acts as a filter, giving a substantial epithermal character to the response, which lies somewhere between the thermal and epithermal responses of a wireline tool. In another novel approach, multiple Geiger Marsden tubes arrayed around the circumference of the collar detect capture gamma rays. In principle, most detected gamma rays come not from neutron capture in the formation, but from capture in the iron of the collar. They thus reflect the neutron population near the detector as if they were neutron detectors. In practice, this tool can exhibit lithology and salinity effects. In formations containing siderite, some correlation between porosity and grain density has been observed from this design. This indicates that some of the gamma rays recorded by the detector do indeed come from the formation. A third design takes a wireline-like approach. The primary measurement uses banks of He-3 detectors at two different spacings from an americium-beryllium source. The source is centered in the drill collar rather than near the formation. Although this makes the source separately retrievable, it also filters and lowers the neutron flux at the formation. Source-to-detector spacings are similar to wireline tools. Porosity is calculated much as it is for wireline logs. A near-to-far count-rate ratio is taken. Shop calibration factors, borehole diameter, mud weight, salinity, temperature, pressure, and matrix corrections are applied to the ratio before finally calculating porosity. This procedure is superior to correcting porosities for these effects in that it reflects perturbations on what the tool measures: neutron slowing-down length, not porosity. Because of absorption of thermal neutrons by the drill collar, the measurement has an epithermal flavor. Each bank of detectors consists of three detectors distributed radially around the circumference of the drill collar. Examining the count rates from the three detectors allows for correction for tool position in the borehole.

Like the gamma ray API unit, some historical baggage accompanies the presentation and scaling of neutron-porosity logs. The curve is presented as porosity, frequently without reference to the matrix, even though the matrix does matter. Although the curve is most often scaled as apparent limestone porosity, as we have seen earlier, it is actually a measurement of the distance required for a neutron to slow down, referred to by physicists as the slowing-down length, Ls. Neutrons produced by an americium-beryllium (Am241Be9) isotopic source have an energy of approximately 4.3 MeV, corresponding to a speed of more than 2000 cm/μs (44 million mph). Above approximately 0.1 eV (a mere 6,000 mph), neutrons slow down primarily through elastic collisions with the nuclei of atoms in the formation. Elastic collisions are like billiard-ball collisions: the nearer the nucleus struck is to the mass of the neutron, the more energy the neutron loses in the collision. This means that hydrogen, the nucleus of which has only a single proton (and which has altogether the same mass as the incoming neutron), is by far the most effective atom at slowing down a neutron (see Table 1). Neutron slowing down by elastic collisions (thermalization) may be visualized as a random walk (see Fig.2). The average straight-line distance that a neutron manages to get from the source before it comes to thermal equilibrium with the reservoir is the slowing-down length, Ls. Note how much longer the slowing-down length for limestone is than for water, as shown in the figure.

Logging tools measure the size of the neutron cloud by looking at the falloff in neutron flux between two detectors. The falloff is inferred from a ratio of near-to-far neutron counting rates. As shown in the top half of Fig.3, this ratio can be uniquely related to slowing-down length. The data points in the plot represent a variety of lithologies and porosites, but all fall along the same trend line. Although it depends on details of lithology and fluid composition, conversion of slowing-down length to porosity is straightforward, as will be seen in the discussion of macroparameters later.

The standard neutron-porosity measurement counts all neutrons, not just the unthermalized or epithermal ones. They are designed this way because the epithermal count rate represents only a small fraction of the neutrons at a distance from the source. To get the count rate (and the precision) up, all available neutrons are counted. This is a textbook example of trading accuracy for precision. While elastic scattering and, thus, the hydrogen content of the formation control epithermal neutron flux, thermal neutrons can interact with the formation in other ways. In particular, they can be captured by other elements in the formation. Neutron capture is not dominated by hydrogen, as Table 2 shows. This means that the standard thermal neutron porosity is contaminated by the subsequent diffusion distance, Ld, that the thermalized neutrons travel before they are finally captured. This is illustrated by the vector sum in Fig.2. This total distance the neutron travels, slowing down plus diffusion, is called the migration length, Lm. Because of the enduring confusion around the matrix assumed for a particular display of neutron porosity and the tenuous relationship between what the tool measures and porosity, values would be better reported in migration length than apparent porosity. It is as if density logs were always displayed as density porosity without always reporting the assumed matrix and fluid densities.

These problems with the interpretation of the standard compensated thermal neutron log have started a search for a new neutron-porosity tool with a more epithermal character. Accelerator neutron sources have begun to appear in commercial porosity tools. These tools take a more sophisticated approach than the simple CNL-like count-rate ratios used by current pulsed-neutron lifetime tools to obtain porosity. For example, Schlumberger has fielded a neutron generator-based porosity sonde that measures several different "neutron porosities" with both thermal and epithermal characters. These different measurements of porosity can be compared and combined to improve the final porosity estimate. While the measurement may be a better hydrogen-index porosity measurement, it is not the same as a standard compensated thermal neutron-porosity log.

Measurement issues

All density measurements suffer if the drillstring is sliding in a high-angle or horizontal borehole with the gamma detectors pointing up (away from the bottom of the wellbore). To overcome this problem, orientation devices are often inserted in the toolstring. As the BHA is being made up, the offset between the density sleeve and the tool face is measured. Adjusting the location of the orientation device allows the density measurement to be set to the desired offset. While the drillstring is sliding to build angle, the density detectors can be oriented downward by setting the offset to 180°.

Neutron measurements

LWD porosity measurements use a source (typically americium beryllium) that emits neutrons into the formation. Neutrons arrive at the two detectors (near and far) in proportion to the amount they are moderated and captured by the media between the source and detectors. The best natural capture medium is hydrogen, generally found in the water, oil, and gas in the pore spaces of the formation. The ratio of neutron counts arriving at the detectors is calculated and stored in memory or transmitted to the surface. A high near/far ratio implies a high concentration of hydrogen in the formation and, hence, high porosity.

Neutron measurements are susceptible to a large number of environmental effects. Unlike wireline or LWD density measurements, the neutron measurement has minimal protection from mud effects. Neutron source/detector arrays are often built into a section of the tool that has a slightly larger OD than the rest of the string. The effect of centering the tool has been shown[5] to have a dramatic influence on corrections required compared to wireline (Fig. 3). Standoff between the tool and the formation requires corrections of approximately 5 to 7 porosity units (p.u.) per inch. Borehole-diameter corrections can range from 1 to 7 p.u./in. depending on tool design. Neutron porosity measurements are also affected by:

  • Mud salinity
  • Hydrogen index
  • Formation salinity
  • Temperature
  • Pressure

However, these effects are generally much smaller, requiring corrections of approximately 0.5 to 2.0 p.u.

Uncertainties in measurements

Statistical effects on nuclear measurements are quite significant. Uncertainties increase as ROP increases. LWD nuclear measurements can be performed either while drilling or while tripping. LWD rates vary because of ROP changes, but they typically range from 15 to 200 ft/hr, whereas instantaneous logging rates can be significantly higher. Tripping rates can range from 1,500 to 3,000 ft/hr. Typical wireline rates are approximately 1,800 ft/hr and constant. Statistical uncertainty in LWD nuclear logging also varies with formation type. In general, log quality begins to suffer increased statistical uncertainties at logging rates above 100 ft/hr. This limits the value of logging while tripping to repeating formation intervals of particular interest.


  1. Brami, J.B. 1991. Current Calibration and Quality Control Practices for Selected Measurement-While-Drilling Tools. Presented at the SPE Annual Technical Conference and Exhibition, Dallas, Texas, 6-9 October. SPE-22540-MS.
  2. Coope, D.F. 1983. Gamma Ray Measurement-While-Drilling. The Log Analyst 24 (1): 3.
  3. Holenka, J., Evans, M., Best, D. et al. 1995. Azimuthal Porosity While Drilling. Presented at the SPWLA 36th Annual Logging Symposium, Paris, France, 26-29 June. SPWLA-1995-BB.
  4. Moake, G.L., Beals, L., and Schultz, W.E. 1996. Reduction Of Standoff Effects On LWD Density And Neutron Measurements. Presented at the SPWLA 37th Annual Logging Symposium, New Orleans, Louisianna, USA, 16-19 June. SPWLA-1996-V.
  5. Allen, D.F., Best, D.L., Evans, M. et al. 1993. The Effect of Wellbore Condition on Wireline and MWD Neutron Density Logs. SPE Form Eval 8 (1): 50-56. 00020563.

Noteworthy papers in OnePetro

P. Nelis, J. Dahl et al. 2006. An Assessment of The Benefits of & Quot;Secure Source & Quot; Systems For Nuclear Logging While Drilling Operations, SPE International Health, Safety & Environment Conference, 2-4 April. 98497-MS.

A. Badruzzaman, P.T. Nguyen et al. 1997. Nuclear Logging-While-Drilling Measurement: An Assessment, Middle East Oil Show and Conference, 15-18 March. 37745-MS.

External links

See also

Nuclear logging

Acoustic logging while drilling

NMR logging tools

PEH:Drilling-Data Acquisition