Cockrell School of Engineering
The University of Texas at Austin


UT PGE launched three new hands-on laboratories that will advance energy research and transform how students learn about oil and gas.

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In this video, Professor Eric van Oort and students discuss the significance of the three new UT PGE labs.

The labs are the brainchild of Eric van Oort, an energy-industry-veteran-turned-professor, who envisioned the labs as a place where faculty and students across engineering and related disciplines can address onshore and offshore drilling challenges, which will help to make the drilling process safer and more environmentally sound. The University of Texas at Austin recruited van Oort in 2012 to help redesign the university’s drilling program.

“We have a vested interest in training and teaching the next generation of engineers,” said van Oort, professor in UT PGE. “These labs will be incubators for future technologies and allow for further development of important drilling and completions research and solutions.”

In September, van Oort unveiled three labs, which are housed in the basement of PGE: the Real-time Operations Center, the Drilling Automation Lab and the Zonal Isolation Lab. The Real-time Operations Center has the capability to process around-the-clock data from operational offshore or onshore wells. The Drilling Automation Lab boasts what’s believed to be the first-of-its-kind drilling simulator in a university setting.

Next door to the drilling labs is the Zonal Isolation Lab, also known as the cement lab, where researchers will test new methods and materials for improving onshore and offshore drilling, which is the process of drilling deep below the earth’s surface to extract underwater oil and gas.

Baker Hughes, a leading oilfield service company, donated $1.7 million to help launch the labs. NOV, a leading supplier of oilfield equipment and services, donated its state-of-the-art rig simulator, valued at $2.7 million.

Drilling Labs

Inside the Drilling Automation Lab, the centerpiece is a virtual driller.

“This equipment will allow us to teach students about modern drilling out in the field,” van Oort said. “We have virtual drilling at our fingertips.”

The simulator device includes two cybernetic chairs and a computer representation of an offshore well projected onto a dome-shaped screen. The purpose is to give students a close approximation of what it is like to actually control a drilling rig — a piece of equipment that typically only a drill operator in the field would have access to, not an engineer.

In the Real-time Operations Lab, students and faculty can monitor and analyze real-time data from offshore and onshore wells. Researchers will be able to actually respond to real-life well activities, such as a sudden increase in flow from the well signaling a kick or a real stuck pipe event. UT PGE is hoping to reach agreements soon with energy companies that will allow access to real-time operations from rigs across the United States and operating globally.

“The goal is to have undergraduate students looking at and analyzing data, seeking out meaningful patterns, to help industry become safer,” van Oort said. “Graduate students will supervise them and also be conducting sophisticated research and development on this particular data.”

Van Oort said one of the goals of these two labs is to help the industry take advantage of automated technologies.

“The oil and gas industry has been lagging behind other industries in terms of adopting automation, mechanization and robotization,” he said. “If you look at rigs in the field, you will still see people working in high-exposure areas such as the drill floor. We need to be better at taking people out of harms way, making operations safer and more efficient at the same time.”

Behcet Acikmese, assistant professor in the Department of Aerospace Engineering and Engineering Mechanics, agrees that drilling automation is crucial to the safe and efficient use of energy resources.

He and his students will take advantage of the lab for their drilling automation research.

“So we are very excited about being a part of the drilling automation team. We see drilling automation as a growth area with many opportunities for significant impact.” Acikmese said.

Van Oort's labs will play a key role in identifying automation challenges and testing solutions before they are deployed in the field.

Ahmed Tewfik, chair of the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, said he anticipates the labs will play a critical role in his and his students’ energy-related research.

“Our pioneering work monitors individuals and machines to cleverly adapt displays, communications and information technologies and mitigate cognitive biases in human decision-making,” he said. “That work would not be possible without Eric van Oort’s labs and will be demonstrated and tested in the lab before deployment in production.”

Zonal Isolation Improvement Lab

Next to the Real-Time Operations Center is the Zonal Isolation Lab, a lab dedicated to solving the problems associated with cementing and achieving zonal isolation in unconventional shale wells and in deep-water wells.

Zonal isolation is a control method that ensures oil and gas don’t migrate up a well or outside of casing after a reservoir has been drilled and cemented.

“Conventional cementing and cementing techniques have some real drawbacks; cement may not be placed or set in the subsurface in the way we want it to or achieve a lasting bond in the way we want it to,” van Oort said. “Creating good and lasting bonds on shale formations or in very deep wells is a very big challenge for the oil and gas industry.

“I’m really excited about having the capability here at UT PGE to make a significant contribution to solve the cementing issues associated with hydraulic fracturing, and to make deep water wells safer in order to help prevent another Macondo/Deepwater Horizon tragedy, where poor zonal isolation was one of the root causes,” he said.

Van Oort believes the work that will be done in all three labs will not only train future engineers, but will get them excited about their role in making the industry safer, more environmentally friendly and more efficient.

“Young people are coming up to me often and asking if they are going to have a viable career in the oil and gas industry. My answer is a resounding ‘Yes,’” he said.