Cockrell School of Engineering
The University of Texas at Austin

Nicolas Espinoza joined UT PGE as an assistant professor in the fall of 2013 and is quickly becoming a “rock” star in the area of geomechanics.

Attending prestigious universities around the world, Espinoza gained vital engineering knowledge from leading professors, preparing him for his faculty role at UT PGE. Espinoza graduated with a B.S. in civil engineering from the National University of Cordoba in Argentina. While earning his M.S. and Ph.D. civil engineering degrees from the Georgia Institute of Technology, Espinoza’s turning point into the energy landscape came to fruition.

Dr. Espinoza holds up a core sample.

Dr. Nicolas Espinoza examining a core sample in the lab

“My major was in civil engineering, but my focus was geotechnical—mostly related to geomechanical problems associated with unconventional gas resources,” said Espinoza.

Upon graduation, Espinoza moved to Paris to work at the famous École des Ponts ParisTech. While at the institution he collaborated with Total, France’s national oil company, on a forward-thinking methane gas project.

“Natural gas is becoming increasingly important in several parts of the world, and we need to find more efficient ways to recover these vast resources,” said Espinoza.

Espinoza, who is fluent in four languages, joined UT PGE because he wants to work with a leading institution to solve our country’s most pressing energy challenges. During his Ph.D. program, he had the opportunity to build connections with a few prominent UT PGE professors on research. Those relationships were also influential in his decision to come to UT Austin.

“I am very aware of energy issues on a global scale and it’s critical we come up with smart solutions in this century to ensure a thriving economy and overall society,” said Espinoza. “I knew I could address the challenges with a career in academics. The amazing professors and researchers as well as the access to resources make this department a great place to work.”

Finding his teaching path and techniques, Espinoza is discovering an old-fashioned academic strategy, using a whiteboard, is the best tool for teaching undergraduate and graduate petroleum engineering students how to master reservoir geomechanics. He finds the students best engage with the data and equations by seeing them written out in a real-time setting.

“In my research, I’m looking to advance the area of geomechanics,” said Espinoza. “I will bring the data from the lab and share it in the classroom with the students, so they can translate the application to the industry. We are arming students with knowledge that is extremely pertinent to solving industry’s issues in offshore and onshore drilling.”

Espinoza is heading up a research project attempting to expand geomechanics knowledge in petroleum engineering and energy application. In France, Espinoza specialized in coal-bed methane research, which he believes can apply to shale gas to enhance the recovery.

“I am researching adsorptive-mechanical properties of organic shales,” said Espinoza. “I want to see how the properties can be used to characterize better hydrocarbon-bearing shales. My past research on methane hydrates and coal-bed methanes will be applied for optimal results.”

Espinoza enlisted his first graduate research assistant, Andreas Michael, who brings in-depth petroleum engineering knowledge, to help conduct the experimental work. Andreas, who joined UT PGE as an undergraduate student from Cyprus, is now enrolled in the fast track Ph.D. program.

“The ultimate goal is to better understand how organic shale acts when exposed to higher pressure gases – for example, CO2 and methane,” said Michael. “We are looking to discover how the adsorptive properties vary between the gases as this will help to best understand where to recover the oil and gas to ensure maximum recovery.”

The project, which is just getting off the ground, will be experimental in nature and incorporate visual structures with 3D imaging technology.

“The industry is focused on unconventionals and it’s all technology-driven, so the rate at which we can find new ways to produce oil and gas from shale plays is much faster,” said Espinoza.

In addition, Espinoza will continue studying methane hydrate deposits' potential to serve as the next energy resource as well as researching the role of carbon sequestration in preventing climate change.

In his free time, Espinoza doesn’t steer away from rocks - rather than breaking them apart, he is climbing them.

“Rock climbing combines two of my favorite activities: outdoor sports and exploring the nature of rocks,” said Espinoza.

By adding Espinoza to the department’s faculty roster, UT PGE has gained a prominent geomechanics expert. He will propel the research in this area forward, while enriching the curriculum to best prepare students for a thriving career in industry.