“When I started in the industry, we used to call it throwing projects over the fence,” said Mark Northam, director of the School of Energy Resources. “Geologists would start with it, do the best job they could and then throw it over the fence to the engineer. The engineer would get a geologic model and go ‘wow, that’s a great geologic model but I can simulate that. That’s too complex.’”
And then the pair would begin arguing.
The idea is to get chemists, geologists, petroleum engineers, physicists and computational scientists – to name a few – speaking the same language, Alvarado said. Something is lost in translation when, say, an engineer is trying to describe a problem to a chemist. The two understand a different problem and thus work towards different solutions.
“It’s not so much about being a generalist as about being multilingual person able to communicate with specialists,” Alvarado said.
The Improved Oil and Gas Recovery program comprises four faculty members from the chemisty, geology, chemical engineering and chemical and petroleum engineering departments. Such an approach is becoming increasingly common in industry, as teams of scientists approach challenges on a project or programmatic basis.
Things get more complicated when it comes to the actual science that might boost production levels. Alvarado likes to talk about “challenging the paradigm” of oil and gas production. What does that mean exactly? Traditionally, as oil fields mature operators turn to what are essentially cleaning solutions to glean oil stuck to the rock. But instead of cleaning oil from the rock, Alvarado and his team are focusing on how to improve oil mobility. Basically, they want to improve oil flow so more of it flows out of the reservoir. Doing that requires fine-tuning of the chemical concoction injected into the reservoir, he said.