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OU’s Mewbourne College of Earth and Energy celebrates centennial, prepares for oil industry’s future with cutting-edge technology

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The National Oilwell Varco drilling simulator June 4.

In 1919, Leon Everette English became the first student in the U.S. to receive a petroleum engineering degree — called “engineering geology” at the time. He graduated in a time when the oil industry consisted mainly of simple steel derricks rising and spewing oil over the plains of Oklahoma and West Texas.

English likely never would have imagined machines capable of replicating the bone-crushing pressure of underground environments, computers capable of learning like students or microscopes imaging objects smaller than hydrogen atoms.

As OU’s Mewbourne College of Earth and Energy celebrates 100 years since its founding, it is preparing for the next century by investing in high-end technology and training for its students.

Mewbourne College hosted a media tour June 4, where it showcased the labs and technology it provides for its students — including a multi-million-dollar drilling simulator, labs simulating subsurface environments and an AI supercomputer. The information in this article all comes from the June 4 tour.

Virtual rig, real experience

Three sleek, black chairs equipped with joysticks and buttons, almost like fighter pilot cockpit seats, face a large colorful screen – this is the National Oilwell Varco drilling simulator.

According to an info sheet provided by the college, the simulator is used to place students into “unique virtual experiences” similar to situations they would face in the field, providing hands-on experience with drilling and well control, particularly focusing on offshore drilling.

“We try to create live scenarios,” said Opeyemi Bello, a postdoctoral researcher at Mewbourne College. “The essence is to prepare them for the real world ... you will never see such learning development in the class anywhere.”

The drilling simulator, which Bello said is one of the largest in the nation, consists of three chairs — for one main driller and two assistant drillers — hooked up to several screens. Bello said the controls on the chairs are very similar to equipment used in the field to control rigs.

Aside from teaching the basics, Bello said the simulator is also capable of placing students in emergency situations, giving them virtual experience responding to dangerous scenarios that could happen at a drilling site.

Bello said the simulator is useful to help understand human error, one of the most dangerous aspects of field work at drilling sites.

“One of the things we try to do here is to find ways to understand how the human and machine interact,” Bello said, “and how we can minimize the errors caused by these interactions.”

Bello said lack of operator comprehension and human fatigue are the two main causes of human error in the field.

Catalin Teodoriu, an associate professor at Mewbourne College, said the industry is shifting to a remote drilling model that may help reduce the effects of operator fatigue.

“The model for drilling is changing, becoming more of a drone pilot model,” Teodoriu said. “Instead of having four people on a ship … the industry is moving to this drone pilot type model where there can be a building with 30 or 40 of the best drillers in the world.”

Teodoriu said this model may help reduce environmental disasters caused by human error.

“We believe this is going to lead to better environmental outcomes,” Teodoriu said.

Teodoriu said while fully remote drilling may not be possible — people should be on-site in case of emergencies — remote operating centers capable of controlling multiple drilling sites are the future of the industry. OU’s drilling simulator will help prepare students for this type of environment, Bello said.

Envy of the nation

The Integrated Core Characterization Center spans a few rooms of neatly lined, rectangular machines, microscopes and other advanced lab equipment designed to give a glimpse into the characteristics of different rock samples, how they fracture and how their pores differ.

According to the college’s info sheet, the lab “gives the students experience generating and utilizing petrophysical measurements that they encounter daily on the job.”

Chandra Rai, director of the Mewbourne School of Petroleum and Geological Engineering, said the practical experience the lab provides students is vital and unmatched in the U.S.

“We introduce the undergraduates to hands-on experience. There’s only so much you can learn looking at books and watching notes,” Rai said. “So what we did about 15 years ago is modernize our labs, and the equipment here is as good as you’ll find in any research lab. I don’t think any university has this level of instruments … This is the envy of universities across the nation at the undergraduate level.”

The sprawling lab consists of numerous machines designed to help collect fracturing data on different types of rocks and several advanced microscopes to view rock pores on a scale smaller than the width of a human hair. This helps researchers design technology and techniques to best extract resources from the rocks.

“We can measure a movement of one micron (one millionth of a meter),” Rai said. “The pores are smaller than the size of a bacteria — they almost reach the level of viruses. To extract hydrocarbon from there, you need new technologies … we expose our students to the latest and the best technologies.”

Rai said the lab helps students understand the properties of the different kinds of rocks they may need to drill and how best to approach extracting oil and gas from them.

“If you don’t understand the rocks properly, you cannot come up with the technologies to extract what is in those bones,” Rai said.

Rai said with the increasing popularity of drilling shale gas and fracking, it is important that students continue to be trained in drilling techniques for the future.

“I don’t see any problem (with oil and gas supply) for the next 75 to 80 years,” Rai said. “There is a resource called gas hydrates. Those resources have more natural gas than mankind has produced since the beginning (of oil drilling). Another (300) or 400 years.”

Beyond what light can see

A pair of large, million-dollar machines offer students at Mewbourne College an ability that could be straight out of science fiction — seeing beyond images discernible from visible light.

Mark Curtis, a research fellow at the Mewbourne School of Petroleum and Geological Engineering, explained the work of the Devon Energy nanoimaging laboratory.

According to the college’s info sheet, the lab’s main focus is using electron-scanning and laser-scanning microscopes to provide high-magnification imagery of rock samples. The lab then assesses the structures of the samples and provides data for research into new drilling and extraction techniques.

The lab uses several large screens to display the images produced by the microscopes, which are provided at extreme magnification and high resolution.

“Being able to look at the pore spaces has been important for the petroleum industry for a long time,” Curtis said. “With the more unconventional reservoirs we’re looking at … the current state of technology is no longer sufficient. We’ve had to go beyond what visible light can image.”

Curtis said the lab’s microscopes are capable of producing images at the sub-nanometer scale — one nanometer is about the width of 10 hydrogen atoms, much smaller than the width of a human hair.

Curtis said the college’s lab is “particularly unique in the world.” Some labs will have electron-scanning and laser-scanning microscopes available, but it is rare for them to be housed in the same lab, as they are at OU’s facility.

Artificial assistants

A small machine with several flashing lights, exposed wires and circuitry disguises a powerful supercomputer able to learn like any student.

Curtis said the humble machine is part of the lab’s research on machine learning and artificial intelligence as tools to improve data interpretation.

“The amount of data we’ve collected since shale exploded on the scene is terabytes on terabytes of data,” Curtis said, “but it’s not been utilized to its full potential. One of the things we’re working on here is developing AI machine learning algorithms to process this data for us.”

A problem AI and machine learning face, Curtis said, is that once the technologies begin to produce incorrect or meaningless data, people start to lose faith in them.

“So we’re taking a ‘machine learning done right’ approach,” Curtis said. “The experiments we’re running are actually checking as far as the quality of the results and our confidence in the results coming out of it.”

The computer in the lab has done well interpreting images and data so far, Curtis said.

“We throw images it hasn’t seen before, that we know, and have it predict,” Curtis said. “So far, accuracy is about 92 percent … that it can tell us where that (sample) came from.”

Rai said the specialization students receive from learning data and analytics from the perspective of the petroleum industry in this lab and in classes at Mewbourne gives OU students a competitive edge.

“When this machine learning started slowly creeping into the industry, petroleum engineers were not being trained,” Rai said, “so they started hiring data and analytics people. (The data and analytics people) did not understand what they want to achieve and what that data means.”

Siddharth Misra, an assistant professor at the School of Petroleum and Geological Engineering, said the specialization OU offers is key to finding success in the workforce.

“It’s well-documented … that getting somebody from a pure data background doesn’t help a lot in the oil and gas industry,” Misra said.

Like Mewbourne’s other labs, Curtis said the practical experience students get at the nanoimaging lab is vital to their success in the field.

“Our students get to participate in cutting-edge research,” Curtis said. “They actually get to work on these real-world problems — when they go out into the workforce, these are the problems companies are facing.”

Curtis said OU’s lab is unique in the quality of its machine learning data.

“There is no other lab in the world that’s taken as many images as we’ve taken that has the database to teach the machine correctly,” Curtis said. “The machine, just like a student, can only learn as well as the data available to it.”

Bone-crushing force

Gritty and industrial, the Halliburton Rock Mechanics Lab differs from many others — while some labs contain intricate technology and sleeker designs, the rock mechanics lab is home to massive steel machines that pack immense power.

According to the college’s info sheet, the Halliburton Rock Mechanics Lab’s purpose is to “recreate subsurface conditions to test rock mechanics in their native environment.”

Stephen Dwyer, lab manager and head research technologist, explained the applications of the research done on rock mechanics and the quality of the equipment at the lab.

Dwyer said the lab recreates the pressure conditions of underground environments using equipment capable of generating varying degrees of pressure — from 55,000 to 650,000 pounds and beyond.

“We have the best facility and the largest research lab in the United States,” Dwyer said, “because we have a large selection of scope and scale.”

To keep the samples from bursting outward under the high pressures applied from the top, the lab uses “pressure vessels” that encase the rock samples and apply pressure up to 20,000 pounds per square inch from the sides.

Dwyer said the relationships the lab builds with national organizations ensure data collected by the lab is seen as credible.

“We have good relationships with the National Institute of Standards and (Technology), so when we say something it actually means something,” Dwyer said.

“These are people who get things done”

Successful and experienced with an eye on the future, executives, professors and other experts in petroleum engineering spoke to an attentive room about OU’s and Mewbourne College’s impact on the industry.

At a discussion panel hosted in Mewbourne College, they discussed the college’s and Oklahoma’s ability to consistently provide exceptional employees and leaders in the industry.

“You kind of have to go back to the land run to find the DNA of the state,” said Mike Ming, an executive with Baker Hughes, a company under General Electric. “It wasn’t the ‘haves’ who came to the land run — it was people who dreamed of something.”

Ming said Oklahoma executives and OU graduates possess the ability to produce results in the industry.

“These are people who get things done. As I’ve worked around the country and around the world, you don’t always find people who get things done.” Ming said. “I think that mentality, that land run, ‘89-er mentality … People are saying, ‘We can figure it out.’”

Ken Waits, CEO of Mewbourne Oil Company — which was founded by Curtis Mewbourne, whom the college is named after — said OU engineers remain highly competitive in the industry compared to their peers.

“OU petroleum engineers compete toe-to-toe every day against other engineers and do very well,” Waits said. “They’re the leaders of corporations for a reason.”

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