UH Dives Deep to Advance Subsea Engineering

UH Dives Deep to Advance Subsea Engineering

Unconventional plays have become so common and have been met with such widespread acceptance that they are no longer unconventional. However, the industry is already looking ahead to what comes next. What – or more precisely, where – is the future of the oil and gas industry? Many in the industry seem to agree that the subsea environment is the next frontier, and the University of Houston (UH), through networking, research and science, is bringing that frontier a little closer.

In recognition of the importance of what lies below the bottom of the sea, three students at the University of Houston’s (UH) Cullen College of Engineering – Nebolisa Egbunike, a UH graduate student in the subsea master’s degree program, and co-founders Ewaen Ogiefo, the first graduate of the subsea master’s program, and Ademola Oladinni – formed the first U.S. professional subsea engineering program in 2013. The Subsea Engineering Society was created to fill the growing need for information sharing and networking within the subsea community.

UH Dives Deep to Advance Subsea Engineering
The Subsea Exploration Society Executive Board (Image courtesy of UH SES)

“Basically, we realized that subsea is the next big thing…the next frontier,” Egbunike told Rigzone. “We wanted to make an impact by creating an avenue for further study, and to generate interest in the subsea environment.”

Over the next 5 to 10 years, global demand for oil could be 100 million barrels per day, Egbunike said. However, the shale formations that are currently providing much of the production will likely have peaked, and subsea environment will play a growing role in meeting that future demand.

Because subsea exploration is multi-disciplinary and very technical, it is advantageous to generate interest as quickly as possible, Egbunike noted.

“There are many Baby Boomers who are close to retirement. We need to use their decades of experience to make a platform of knowledge to build on.”

The newly formed organization is already helping to put subsea exploration on the radar for many people interested in an energy career. It already has more than 80 prospective members, and has generated interest from as far away as China, Nigeria and the Ukraine, according to UH.

The new organization is just what is needed to help students through a lifelong commitment to learning and a need to network, said Matthew Franchek, the university’s subsea engineering program founding director. Franchek is aware of the importance of subsea engineering, as well as the challenges confronting those in the subsea arena.

“The easy oil is gone,” Franchek said at a recent Focus on Energy event that was put on by the UH Energy initiative and the Graduate School.

He talked about the extreme environment and about the costs associated with drilling for oil in such an extreme environment, where equipment failures can cost billions of dollars. However, for the grad students who attended the event, the takeaway from Franchek’s speech was unmistakable: despite the costs and difficulties encountered, the subsea environment is simply too rich in resources not to mine it.

UH offers the first and only subsea curriculum in the United States, as well as the only master’s degree in subsea engineering in the country. The Subsea Engineering Program has already received donations from KBR and Cameron to help advance the science and engineering needed for subsea exploration and drilling. The master’s program is designed for professional, working engineers. Most of the courses are available online, although students living in the Houston area will need to go to the campus for computer lab simulation work, according to Franchek.

Putting Science to Work in a Subsea Environment

Part of the subsea research at UH involves using science to invent new materials and products for the subsea environment. One subsea drilling challenge involves finding ways to transmit information about a drilling site that is thousands of feet down back to operators on the surface. A way to transmit needed information back to the surface is to use materials that are sensitive to the environment and go through a change in electrical resistance when the drilling infrastructure is stressed.

Cumaraswamy Vipulanandan, professor of civil and environmental engineering and director of the Center for Innovative Grouting Materials and Technology at the UH Cullen College of Engineering, is using donations from Baker Hughes and grant money from the DOE-funded Research Partnership to Secure Energy for America to develop and use new materials with greater sensing properties. Vipulanandan is using nanoparticles, coupling agents and additives that can be added to cementing slurry, drilling mud and other materials to transmit needed information back to operators on the surface.  

UH Dives Deep to Advance Subsea Engineering
A subsea separation system separates heavy oil, gas, sand and water at a water depth of nearly 3,000 feet (Image courtesy of FMC Technologies)

Another area of research at UH’s Cullen College involves sensors that use hyperspectral imaging to detect oil on the surface of the water. The sensors, which are being developed by Wei-Chuan Shih, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering, search for infrared radiation on the water’s surface. Using algorithms, the sensors then look for an infrared signal from oil among the water’s infrared signal.

In the Gulf of Mexico alone, there are thousands of unmanned drilling platforms, and helicopters monitor the surface of the water near these platforms. The sensors being developed at UH could eventually eliminate the need for helicopters to monitor the water, thus saving money and reducing mistakes.


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