Oral-History:David Curry


About the Interviewee

David Curry

David Curry is a Baker Hughes Technology Fellow working in the Technology Portfolio Management group. In addition to working on rock property estimation and drilling performance prediction, he is also active on the Baker Hughes materials committee. He is actively involved in developing technology strategy and working with clients and key vendors on technical issues. Prior to his current appointment, he was senior technical advisor and director of research for the Baker Hughes Drill Bit Systems product line.

Dr. Curry has more than 25 years experience in drilling-related research and technology development with Baker Hughes, TerraTek, the International Drilling and Downhole Technology Centre, and Schlumberger Cambridge Research. Before joining the oil industry, he spent six years developing and applying fracture mechanics-based integrity assessments for nuclear power plants.

He has a Master of Arts in natural sciences and a doctorate in fracture mechanics, both from Cambridge University. He is a fellow of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers; a professional member of the Institute of Materials, Minerals and Mining; a member of the Society of Petroleum Engineers (SPE); and a chartered engineer. Dr. Curry’s SPE activities include the position of executive editor of the Drilling and Completions Journal, chair of the research and development technical section, and member of a number of other technical and meeting committees. Dr. Curry was presented a 2010 SPE Distinguished Member award.

Further Reading

Access additional oral histories from members and award recipients of the AIME Member Societies here: AIME Oral Histories

About the Interview

David Curry: An interview conducted by Amy Esdorn for the Society of Petroleum Engineers, September 28, 2015.

Interview SPEOH000126 at the Society of Petroleum Engineers History Archive.

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Audio File
MP3 Audio


DATE: September 28, 2015
PLACE: Houston, Texas


My name is Amy Esdorn and I’m here at the Society of Petroleum Engineers Annual Technical Conference and Exhibition at the George R. Brown Convention Center in Houston, Texas. Today is September 28th, 2015 and I’m speaking with David Curry. David, thank you so much for coming and agreeing to be a part of this project.


You’re welcome.


So let’s begin. My first question for you is how did you get involved in the industry?


So I graduated and got a PhD in fracture mechanics in England, went to work in the nuclear power industry which was then a nationalized industry, the Central Electricity Generating Board and research related to the structural integrity of nuclear power plant. Great fun, but as I was there it became increasingly clear to me that 90% of the people who, like me, had joined as research officers retired as research officers and I was young enough that this seemed really quite a dreary progression and at about the same time, that that dawned on me, Schlumberger announced they were setting up a research lab in Cambridge which is where I spent six years as a student, had a great time. Thought that sounds exciting, let’s apply there and I did.

They offered me the job and I can remember agonizing over should I accept this and join the hire and fire oil industry and leave behind a secure job for life in nationalized industry. I took the plunge, went to work in the oil industry and about 18 months later, the electricity generating board was privatized. The research lab in which I [00:02:00] worked was closed down. My group leader, last things he had to do, tried to find employment for those under 50. Anyone over 50 like him was pensioned off and it was his job to turn off the lights and close the door. That was more than 30 years ago. I’m still employed in the oil industry.

So I probably made the right choice there. Now, I have to say I’m not employed in the same company but I have been with Baker Hughes for 19 years. I’ve seen the cycles come and go, and I would hope that those who are joining the industry now will also have an equivalent interesting time.


That’s a great story. So you kind of said that –what drew you to the industry? I mean you talk about taking the plunge and going from, you know, you’re working in fracturing. Fracturing patterns I think is what you said.


Fracture mechanics.




I was actually going from trying to stop things from breaking, the pressure vessels which contain the core of a nuclear reactor and contain the circulating cooling medium or heat transfer medium. So trying to stop those from breaking and ensuring that they would never break through to drilling where fundamentally you’re trying to break rock as fast as you possibly can. So it was an inversion of the ideas, if you like. And there was an excitement about the industry. One of the first things that we did when I joined Cambridge was go to the Schlumberger’s then drilling contractors training school in Southwest France and we had one day on the training rig and at that stage, people made connections, connected [00:04:00] one drill pipe to the next using a chain to spin up the joint before you put the tongs on to make up the connection and so we were taught to throw the chain. Well, you wouldn’t dare do that now. It was fundamentally a dangerous thing to do.

We’ve moved away from that. Okay, we drove with top drives and we have the iron roughnecks and everything to get people in to the much safer industry than it was, but at the same time, we were taught a good crew made a connection in four minutes. Now, 10 minutes is a rapid connection. And usually, top drives, we only make connections every –we only have to make one third the number of connections but a difference there. I visited a rig working out in east Texas in the 1980s and there the rig crews were explaining –the driller was explaining to me that he had to have a different crew working on the floor from the ones that had been working out in Louisiana or on the Gulf Coast because the East Texas wells, the drilling was so slow that you might make one connection per tower, whereas the Gulf Coast crews used to making a connection every half hour or so, they just get bored.

So that leads me to how some of the ways in which the industry might have changed so –I will use that east Texas gas well as an example. Around the time I was born, in the early ‘50s, and I know [00:06:00] records show that it was taking maybe 250 drill bits to drill each one of those East Texas gas wells. So around the time I first visited one of those rigs, it was being done with between 30 and 40 drill bits, and you had moved from steel tooth bits to tungsten carbide steel bearing bits and you had seen that dramatic extension in the longevity of the drill bits. Well, now with PDC, some of those wells are drilled with just two bits. Typically, it’s three or four, but down to that level of two. The drill bit technology has advanced so much that we’ve seen basically two orders of magnitude extension in the footage that we can achieve with each drill bit.

I guess other ways that the industry has changed since I joined, I remember having an internal workshop about horizontal wells and how those might impact the industry and this would’ve been ’85 or so. At that stage, Elf had just developed the Rospo Mare field in the Adriatic, offshore Italy which was a fractured carbonite well field and that was the first field developed with horizontal wells and one of their sort of horizontal well gurus came in to the workshop and explained that, talking about geometries, and there was a limit that you would never be able to get out further than you can go down. That was the sort of the physical limit to bear in mind when designing a horizontal well. ExxonMobil have drilled offshore Sakhalin wells [00:08:00] that are going out 35 plus thousand feet and maybe down 7000 to 10,000. The aspect ratios that are achievable are just dramatically different from what we thought then and we’ve moved on.

Horizontal wells are no longer the exception. It’s almost the stage where you have to explain why you don’t think you need horizontal wells to develop a field rather than why you feel you have to drill them and horizontal wells are one element of the other dramatic or another dramatic change that the industry has seen in my 30 years, and that is being able to produce hydrocarbon from shale. The combination of horizontal wells and multistage hydraulic fractures mean that the shales which were unproductive or just a nuisance something you try to drill through as fast as you could to get to the real pay beneath. They’ve now become the pay and we are producing large volumes of natural gas and oil from shale.

I do remember one of the Schlumberger executives explaining to me that yes, we’ve known about the oil in shale for many years and for many years, the judgment has been it would become economic if only the oil price doubled. Whatever the oil price was, it would become economic if the oil price would only double. About 10 years ago, the combination of horizontal wells and hydraulic fracturing meant that not only was producing oil from shale economic, it was really attractive and we’ve seen that, the boom in shale drilling.


That’s great. So in all of –so you’ve spoken about, you know, [00:10:00] some of the innovations that have happened in the last few years, especially during your time in the industry, but what was the project or innovation that you worked on that you’re the most proud of?


Right. I think I’m probably going to give you two answers to this and maybe I shouldn’t actually be proud, maybe it’s vanity on my part, but the first one is the commercial drilling performance service called OASIS which was developed within Baker Hughes which led to me joining Baker Hughes some 19 years ago and when I joined it was very much in its infancy, just one manager and I think I was the third engineer to join. Between us, we mapped out the processes involved in optimizing drilling performance, put together a technical structure to underpin the service and it grew and we ended up with 60 plus engineers around the world and the technical support group that I ran provided the process, the technical infrastructure, decision support, the analytical tools that they used. So for good reasons, certainly what seemed like good reasons at the time, Baker Hughes decided to change the way in which drilling performance was offered to our clients. The OASIS service was disbanded and that was more than 10 years ago. Even now, oil companies would come to us and ask for an OASIS [00:12:00] project. So I think we had an impact. We actually created a brand name in there and that, I feel proud of that.

The other thing that I feel a degree of personal involvement with, let’s say, is a family of polycrystalline diamond PDC cutters that – well, Dan Scott, a colleague and good friend and I, jointly came up with the suggestion that here was a technology that could be exploited to improve the abrasion resistance of PDC cutters and we had some difficulty getting acceptance to that and the first few prototypes looked promising. It got to the stage, by the way, that the cutters were internally referred as DC cutters after David Curry because I was being so insistent we had to go down that route and I remember I had to say, “Look, humor me. Make enough that we can put them on a bit and test them in the field.” Well, that was 2006, 2007 so wherever we are eight, nine years on that cutter technology is still at least as far as we can tell, still the most abrasion resistant in the market. I’m pleased about that, I have to say.


And so – I mean, it sounds like there was a lot of sort of testing and re-testing and how did you really go about what –how did you come up with the idea of abrasion resistance? What specifically started the whole thing?


Right. So what actually started –I may get a little bit technical here. [00:14:00] My first degree is in material science and PhD is in fracture of steels and there are certain –particularly looking at the relationship between microstructure and fracture properties and what I wanted to do was to try to extrapolate that into diamond. Now, the external examiner for my PhD thesis was Professor Norman Petch. In material science, there is a rule, if you like, the whole Petch equation which relates strength, material strength to grain size and that’s what we were exploiting in those cutters, so the linkage was actually back to my external examiner to be able to say that, the man who first recognized this fundamental law of material science actually examined my PhD thesis of which I was rather pleased about.

So one of the things that has kept me in the industry—I’ll try to illustrate with a bit with a story. About two years or so after I joined Schlumberger, I presented my first SPE paper at an SPE conference, I think at the annual conference. After I presented it, a man came up at the end of the session and introduced himself to me. This was Marvin Gearhart who, founder of one of the biggest service companies in the industry then and one of Schlumberger’s main competitors, and Marvin was sufficiently interested. There he was CEO, founder of a major service company, sufficiently interested in the technologies and the people [00:16:00] that he could come up and say hello to a raw sort of newcomer to the industry. That interest –technology enthusiasm and interest in people pervades the industry and I think that’s one of the things which makes it exciting and has kept me here.


So you’ve kind of touched on it there, but what has made working in the industry meaningful for you?


So I’ve touched upon some of the personalities that were involved and the human interactions. Then, at the same time, I think I’m going to get vaguely serious here and say that our product as an industry, hydrocarbon, touches many people’s lives and frankly, it enriches many people’s lives. Much of human activity depends upon safe, affordable, and secure access to hydrocarbons, particularly the energy that they provide and also, the raw materials or the materials that are rather made from hydrocarbon as the chemical feedstock. Energy is an integral part of much human activity. If you don’t have ready access to energy, then your life frankly, your condition of material standard of living is very much lower and the alternatives are not very attractive. Similarly, much of what we use in our day-to-day lives is made out of materials that have used [00:18:00] hydrocarbon either as a raw material part of the raw materials from which they’re made or in the energy that’s used to turn those raw materials into the products, the devices we use, our transport, whatever.


Well, this is our last question and here it is. How has being an SPE member affected your career?


Right. How has being an SPE member affected my career? Pretty profoundly I think. So I’m here. So I’ve been an SPE member for 30 years. The SPE says and quite rightly recognizes its core mission is the collection and dissemination, sharing of technical knowledge relating to production of oil and natural gas. So I’ve been involved in research and development and the application of technology. I’ve accessed what other people have done by reading the papers that the SPE has published by attending the conferences. More than that, it’s enabled me to interact – to meet and interact with others who are working in similar domains. It’s given me the exposure to different spheres of activity. Only last month, I was at a summit around definition of reserves in unconventional reservoirs and as a driller, I learned a great deal from that. I’m not sure I contributed very much to the summit but I learned a great deal from it. I’ve also been able to work through a number of different committees [00:20:00] and on publication side of things. The peer review journals, particularly the drilling completion journal has been a source of great satisfaction frankly to me. I’ve been a technical editor. I’ve published papers in it. I’ve been a technical editor. A Review Chairman as they used to be called, now Associate Editor. I’ve been Executive Editor and there’s been a great deal of satisfaction in turning papers into print, sharing them with the members and hopefully providing technology, knowledge that practicing drilling completion engineers can use to perform their job more effectively.


Well, thank you so much for all your hard work and thank you for participating in this interview. I hope that you have many more years ahead of you to do so to continue working with us. Thank you.


You’re most welcome Amy, thank you.