Grant Helps University Expand Undergraduate Curriculum

Image courtesy of Chevron.
Mechanical earth modeling integrates many geological features and forces into a single model.

Numerical models have been used by the oil and gas industry for more than a decade to simulate the mechanical properties of rock, yet many universities only require undergraduate petroleum engineering students to take one or two geology classes, according to a professor at Missouri University of Science and Technology.

In an effort to change this culture, Missouri S&T, with help from Chevron, became the first US university to offer mechanical earth modeling (MEM) classes at the undergraduate level in 2008.

This year, Chevron created a doctoral scholarship position to assist Missouri S&T in expanding the MEM curriculum initiative to other university partners. So far, Pennsylvania State University and Louisiana State University have both expressed interest.

MEM is a method of subsurface characterization that looks not only at geology near the wellbore, but also larger features such as tectonics and fault trends, which affect and shape an entire area. Mechanical models create detailed pictures of geological features, forces, and rock properties by using data from a variety of sources.

“The strength of MEM is that it is an interdisciplinary approach,” said Andreas Eckert, a Missouri S&T assistant petroleum engineering professor. “You try to collect as much data as possible from different disciplines and build a consistent model that integrates the data to create a better picture of the mechanical state of a place in the earth.”

Petroleum engineering students at Missouri S&T are now required to take six geology classes, in addition to two classes devoted to MEM. By taking one extra course, students can graduate with a minor in geology.

The initiative began in 2007 after the university was awarded a USD 1.5 million grant from Chevron’s Drilling and Completions Department to expand the school’s engineering programs. The money was used to revise classes, hire staff, and update facilities that ultimately allowed the initiative to move forward.

Chevron learned that the university had been considering combining its petroleum engineering, geological engineering, and geology and geophysics departments to foster a more integrated engineering environment. This was positive news for the company, which is researching ways to make numerical models more descriptive by engaging more disciplines and using more types of data.

After talks with Missouri S&T, Harvey Goodman, Chevron fellow in rock mechanics and MEM, taught the first undergraduate class on MEM in spring 2008. The following year, Eckert was hired to oversee and expand the program.

“We are receiving good feedback that our students are well prepared, due to this integrative approach, on concepts such as how environmental stress affects hydraulic fracturing,” said Eckert.

More education on geology and modeling helps students learn additional strategies for solving problems that they are already encountering as petroleum engineering students, Eckert said. “Our goal at the undergraduate level is not to make our students experts [in MEM],” he said, “but rather that they be aware that this approach exists and that if problems arise, where [geomechanical] conditions aren’t understood, they can resort back to this approach and get a better understanding.”

The university also plans to create what it calls an MEM center of excellence, where it will cooperate with other schools on research.

Today, MEM is commonly used in investigating wellbore and infrastructure stability. The technique can be used to simulate geomechanical stresses acting on wells, casing, and pipelines to determine the probability of hazardous situations arising in the future.

Another example that Goodman gave was using models to predict the likely effects of infill drilling and reservoir depletion on an area surrounding a well.

“People come together early on in a project to build these models, and that’s a good thing,” he said. “They can factor the risk going into a project, rather than react to something bad that happens during the execution.”

As more research is conducted, Goodman said that the industry expects numerical models to be used for an increasing number of purposes. Researchers are working on ways of using MEM to more accurately model parameters such as long-term productivity, which can help operators determine whether a project will be economical.

Grant Helps University Expand Undergraduate Curriculum

Jack Betz, JPT Staff Writer

01 September 2015

Volume: 67 | Issue: 9

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