Gamma ray logging

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Example gamma ray log. Blue and black lines indicate the measured gamma rays. Sand section of interest is located at bottom of log where the log moves to the left.

Gamma ray logging is a method of measuring naturally occurring gamma radiation to characterize the rock or sediment in a borehole or drill hole. It is a wireline logging method used in mining, mineral exploration, water-well drilling, for formation evaluation in oil and gas well drilling and for other related purposes.[1] Different types of rock emit different amounts and different spectra of natural gamma radiation. In particular, shales usually emit more gamma rays than other sedimentary rocks, such as sandstone, gypsum, salt, coal, dolomite, or limestone because radioactive potassium is a common component in their clay content, and because the cation exchange capacity of clay causes them to absorb uranium and thorium. This difference in radioactivity between shales and sandstones/carbonate rocks allows the gamma tool to distinguish between shales and non-shales.

The gamma ray log, like other types of well logging, is done by lowering an instrument down the drill hole and recording gamma radiation variation with depth. In the United States, the device most commonly records measurements at 1/2-foot intervals. Gamma radiation is usually recorded in API units, a measurement originated by the petroleum industry. Gamma logs are attenuated by diameter of the borehole because of the properties of the fluid filling the borehole, but because gamma logs are most often used in a qualitative way, corrections are usually not necessary.

Three elements and their decay chains are responsible for the radiation emitted by rock: potassium, thorium and uranium. Shales often contain potassium as part of their clay content, and tend to absorb uranium and thorium as well. A common gamma-ray log records the total radiation and cannot distinguish between the radioactive elements, while a spectral gamma ray log (see below) can.

For standard GR logs, the value measured is calculated from thorium in ppm, Uranium in ppm and potassium in percent. GR API = 8 × Uranium concentration in ppm + 4 × thorium concentration in ppm + 16 × potassium concentration in percent. Due to the weight of uranium concentration in the calculation, anomalous concentrations of uranium can cause clean sand reservoirs to appear shaley. Spectral Gamma ray is used to provide an individual reading for each element so anomalies in concentration can be found and interpreted.

An advantage of the gamma log over some other types of well logs is that it works through the steel and cement walls of cased boreholes. Although concrete and steel absorb some of the gamma radiation, enough travels through the steel and cement to allow qualitative determinations.

Sometimes non-shales also have elevated levels of gamma radiation. Sandstone can contain uranium mineralization, potassium feldspar, clay filling, or rock fragments that cause it to have higher-than usual gamma readings. Coal and dolomite may contain absorbed uranium. Evaporite deposits may contain potassium minerals such as carnallite. When this is the case, spectral gamma ray logging can be done to identify these anomalies.

Spectral logging[edit]

The technique of measuring the spectrum, or number and energy, of gamma rays emitted as natural radioactivity by the formation. There are three sources of natural radioactivity in the Earth: 40K, 232Th and 238U, or potassium, thorium and uranium. These radioactive isotopes emit gamma rays that have characteristic energy levels. The quantity and energy of these gamma rays can be measured in a scintillation detector. A log of natural gamma ray spectroscopy is usually presented as a total gamma ray log and the weight fraction of potassium (%), thorium (ppm) and uranium (ppm). The primary standards for the weight fractions are formations with known quantities of the three isotopes. Natural gamma ray spectroscopy logs were introduced in the early 1970s, although they had been studied from the 1950s.

The characteristic gamma ray line that is associated with each component:

  • Potassium : Gamma ray energy 1.46 MeV
  • Thorium series: Gamma ray energy 2.61 MeV
  • Uranium-Radium series: Gamma ray energy 1.76 MeV

Another example of the use of spectral gamma ray logs is to identify specific clay types, like Kaolinite or Illite. This can be used for environmental interpretation as Kaolinite forms from Feldspars in tropic soils by leaching of Potassium; and low Potassium readings may thus indicate paleosols.[2] The identification of clay types is also useful for calculating the effective porosity of reservoir rock.

Use in mineral exploration[edit]

Gamma ray logs are also used in mineral exploration, especially exploration for phosphates, uranium, and potassium salts.