Cockrell School of Engineering
The University of Texas at Austin


Drilling for oil and gas is more complex than ever before. Wells are diving into ultra-deep water, with water depths greater than 10,000 feet and wells exceeding 35,000 feet in measured depth, where robots roam and humans don’t exist.

This scenario paints a picture comparable to space exploration – going into unknown territory that contains great risk. Yet, the human drive remains to recover more hydrocarbon resources such that society can continue to fulfill its growing energy needs.

Dr. Eric van Oort, a professor at UT PGE, is launching three new labs in 2013 funded by Baker Hughes. They will address current drilling issues and provide sound solutions for how to improve drilling safety and efficiency, while at the same time addressing the complex new drilling challenges confronting the industry.

“We want to build the best drilling and completions-related program in the world, and the generous funding provided by Baker Hughes is integral to achieving this goal,” said Dr. van Oort. “With this funding, our students and faculty will have access to state-of-the-art equipment and facilities that support world-class teaching and research as well as development of new technologies. Very few institutions in the world can claim the capabilities that these labs at UT will have.”

The three labs will each focus on specific research and teaching topics:

Zonal isolation improvement - One of the key issues in today’s harsh offshore environments, as well as onshore shale well construction, is ensuring proper zonal isolation—a control method that ensures oil and gas do not migrate up the annular spaces of a well after a reservoir has been drilled. Future research discoveries could improve methods for deepwater drilling as well as resolve the current controversy on hydraulic fracturing.  

Real-time operations center – The goal of this lab is to collect real-time data from participating drilling operations around the world in order to improve sensor failure analysis, complex data pattern analysis, develop automation control algorithms, etc.

Drilling automation and efficiency lab – Students in this lab will use scaled-down rig equipment to try and automate the drilling process. Drilling dynamics and efficiencies will be studied as well. The lab will further enable advanced prototyping and research and development before wells are drilled.

“There is a major need to create new systems and solutions as the outdated technology will not meet today’s or future needs, said van Oort. “Modernization of these programs is crucial for training the next generation of drilling and completions engineers, especially because the bulk of current petroleum engineers are approaching retirement.”

To create a successful program, Dr. van Oort has brought in one of the best from the field. Mike Cowan, a sponsored Apache research fellow and a pioneer of deep water cementing with more than 55 patents to his name, will serve as a key player in developing a zonal isolation program that arms students with knowledge in safe and efficient drilling as well as enhancing the current technology.

“With deep water now a major focus, there is a clear need among operators to solve the problem of having the cementation meet the required level of reliability and integrity,” said Cowan. “The research at UT will be on the leading edge for the next generation of wells.”

The labs will become part of a first-class drilling program, which will have an interactive teaching aspect and an updated curriculum for undergraduates and graduates that heavily emphasizes the modern fundamentals which are key to succeeding in industry.