Cockrell School of Engineering
The University of Texas at Austin

In an industry downturn, it is especially important to discover innovations that enhance oil and gas operations’ efficiency and minimize costs.

Two UT PGE professors and a research scientist are creating solutions to meet these critical needs. From building the world’s largest database for multi-phase flow to developing a new technique for obtaining residual oil from old reservoirs to analyzing real-time data, these faculty members are revolutionizing the recovery process.

Mukul Sharma

Dr. Mukul Sharma, Professor

Project(s): Pipe Fractional Flow (PFF) and ANNA

How would you describe your research projects?

Among the many research projects in our group, this year I want to highlight two software products that have emerged from our research over the past eight years. One is a fast, analytical model, Pipe Fractional Flow, and the other is the world’s largest database for multi-phase flow, ANNA.

Multi-phase flow calculations that relate pressure drops to flow rates in wellbores and pipes are well-known for being inaccurate and unreliable. Through research conducted by Dr. Anand Nagoo, we have been able to greatly improve the predictive capabilities of multi-phase flow calculations. The results of the model have been benchmarked with hundreds of data sets using ANNA, which consists of more than 80,000 published data sets including over 6,000 field data sets.

How is this software helping the industry improve efficiency in a downturn?

Our ability to make more accurate predictions of liquid holdup and pressure drops in wellbores and flowlines allows us to much more reliably predict the performance of horizontal, deviated and vertical wells over their life, from initial production to liquid loading to artificial lift.

These improved predictions play a crucial role in making decisions about wellbore trajectories, completion design and choke management. This in turn leads to better well productivity and higher EURs for all wells, conventional and unconventional, onshore and offshore. All of this can be achieved at a fraction of the cost of currently available multi-phase flow simulators.

Is it currently being tested in the field?

Yes, we have used the software for many field case studies over the past year. It is currently being used and tested in-house by eight major operators. We formed a company Pipe Fractional Flow, LLC to commercialize, develop, support and maintain the software. 

What do you want people to understand about your research?

It is important to realize this research is a paradigm shift in the way multi-phase flow is modeled. It is fast, analytical and therefore extremely practical. Being coupled with a standard database, it is also easy to test, validate and compare with actual data or with other models. It addresses a wide range of fluid flow problems in the oil and gas industry as well as in the chemical and nuclear industries.

What do you see as the future for this technology 10 years from now?

Over the next 10 years, we see this technology and software being widely used not only by experts within a company but by a wide variety of engineers who need to make reliable multi-phase flow calculations. This will happen because of the easy-to-use nature of the technology and its much lower cost.

Hugh Daigle

Dr. Hugh Daigle, Assistant Professor

Project: NanoEOR

How would you describe your project?

In this project, we have developed a new technique for recovering residual oil from old reservoirs, in particular those containing heavy oil. The technique involves using emulsions of natural gas liquids (NGLs) in water stabilized with silica nanoparticles. The emulsions are pumped through the reservoir, and the NGLs mix with the residual oil, which makes it easier to remove.

How is it helping industry improve efficiency in a downturn?

The use of NGLs, which are extremely inexpensive and often considered a waste product from oil production, is quite economical. Additionally, being able to perform tertiary recovery in existing fields may be a lot more feasible than exploring for new prospects and drilling new wells in the current economic environment.

Is it currently being tested in the field?

We have only proven the concept in the laboratory. We are certainly interested in hearing from anyone who is open to participating in a field test.

What do you want people to understand about your research?

UT Austin has been conducting nanoparticle-related research for more than five years, and we feel that only now are we getting to the point where our products are field-ready. We need to remember that the work going on now will prove useful in the future, and that research and development are imperative to maintain even in a downturn.

What do you see as the future for this technology 10 years from now?

My hope is that nanoparticles will eventually be a complement to existing surfactant-based EOR operations. Nanoparticles have some advantages over surfactants, particularly for performance in high-salinity brines. I think this will broaden the scope of EOR options that are available to industry.

Pradeep Ashok

Dr. Pradeep Ashok, Research Scientist

Project: RAPID

How would you describe your project?

RAPID (Rapid Automation and Performance Improvement in Drilling) is a consortium that conducts research aimed at automating drilling and completions operations. The program, which is supervised by faculty and research staff from both the mechanical and petroleum engineering departments, launched in May 2015 with the objective of increasing efficiency in drilling and completions operations. The downturn has made improvement imperative, and this project is aimed at delivering solutions.

How is it helping industry improve efficiency in a downturn?

We are working on multiple technologies that improve efficiency, including:

  • Automated Data Analysis: We are automating the data analysis process and making it easier for operators to extract value from data they have already collected.
  • Automated Control: By letting the machine do tasks that have complex physics and require quick response time, we can reduce tool failure and improve operations. We are working on advanced control algorithms that make this possible.
  • Innovative Sensing Technologies: Better sensors lead to more accurate data, which in turns leads to improved and automated controls. We are working towards replacing antiquated sensors with sophisticated sensing technologies, which will also greatly reduce maintenance needs. It is time for the Marsh Funnel (invented 1931) to be replaced with 21st century technology.

Is it currently being tested in the field?

Many of our tools are currently being tested with field data. Our automated data analysis process has already identified more than $50 million of potential savings for oil and gas operators. The sensors and control algorithms we are developing have been prototyped in our labs and are ready for field testing.

What do you want people to understand about your research?

Drilling automation is key to increasing productivity. A lot of other industries adopted automation a long time ago. Our industry is behind the curve, and research under the RAPID umbrella aims to accelerate the development and adoption of automation solutions. In addition, once the downturn is over the number of rigs will increase and there will be a shortage of qualified manpower. Automation is a necessity in ramping up operations safely when this happens.

What do you see as the future for this technology 10 years from now?

Every downturn has resulted in innovations. We see widespread adoption of advanced sensors and automated control algorithms in the future. We also envision automated processing of large amounts of data, which are already routinely collected and stored. All of this will make our industry safer and more efficient.