Dr. Aziz is the Otto N. Miller Professor of Earth Sciences and Professor of Petroleum Engineering at Stanford University. He served as professor of chemical and petroleum engineering at the University of Calgary where he established the Computer Modeling Group and managed it for 5 years. He has also served on the faculty of the University of Alberta and as the Chief Engineer of Karachi Gas Co. Ltd. At Stanford, Aziz served as the Associate Dean for Research (School of Earth Sciences) and Chair of the Petroleum Engineering Department. His research interests include reservoir simulation, modeling of advanced wells, multiphase flow in pipes, and natural gas engineering. He graduated from the University of Michigan (BSE), University of Alberta (BSc and MSc), and Rice U. (PhD). He has been awarded Honorary Membership in the Society of Petroleum Engineers and has published more than 150 technical papers, two books and one monograph. He is a frequent consultant to major oil and gas companies and government agencies, is a member of the National Academy of Engineering of the United States and the European Academy of Sciences.
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About the Interview
Khalid Aziz: An interview conducted by Amy Esdorn for the Society of Petroleum Engineers, October 29, 2014.
Interview SPEOH000118 at the Society of Petroleum Engineers History Archive.
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INTERVIEWEE: Khalid Aziz
INTERVIEWER: Amy Esdorn
OTHERS PRESENT: Marco Blomsma
DATE: October 29, 2014
PLACE: Amsterdam, The Netherlands
Background, Education, and Entry into the Petroleum Engineering Profession
Today is Wednesday, October 29th, 2014. My name is Amy Esdorn with Society of Petroleum Engineers. And I am here with Dr. Khalid Aziz to record his oral history. Dr. Aziz, thank you for joining us.
It’s a pleasure.
My first question for you is really about how you grew up. Can you please tell me where you grew up?
Well, it’s a bit of a long story, but let me get started. I grew up in Pakistan. Before Pakistan came into existence, of course, it was all India. And we lived in Karachi, which is a major city in Pakistan. And I went to high school there and then the first two years of college in Karachi. In 1952, I came to the United States to study engineering at the University of Michigan. Largely, it was an idea of my father. I was actually too young to think about these things. So I came to study at the University of Michigan and I started in an aeronautical engineering program.
And after the first year, I thought well, maybe this won’t be so useful for me, so I switched to mechanical engineering. So I did mechanical engineering and graduated in 1955. And then I worked for a couple of years in Detroit as a mechanical engineer, about a year and a half, and I didn’t really like what I was doing. I found it boring and I was designing farm implements [laughter]. So I had an opportunity to apply for and get a scholarship to study petroleum engineering.
The reason I got interested in petroleum engineering was that at about that time, Pakistan had discovered a large gas field, so I thought I would go back and work there. So I got a scholarship to go study petroleum engineering in Canada at the University of Alberta. I was there from ‘57 to ‘58. Since I already had a degree in mechanical engineering, it didn’t take very long to get a degree in petroleum engineering, and I really liked petroleum engineering. I found it more exciting, the problems more challenging. So that was really the--other than the basic stuff, the application side was really the first thing that really got me excited about engineering.
So after graduating from the University of Alberta, I decided to go back to Pakistan and work. I had a job in Karachi with a gas company. I worked on designing gas distribution systems and so on. Because of this large discovery of gas, Pakistan was going through building the gas distribution system and so on. So that was pretty interesting, and I worked for a year and a half in Karachi for this company. Without really thinking about graduate work, I got a letter one day from the University of Alberta that they had given me a scholarship to study petroleum engineering at the master’s level. So I thought about it and I said… I was pretty young so you’re willing to do anything. So I packed my bags once more and in the fall of ‘59, I came back to Canada, to the University of Alberta, did Master’s in Petroleum Engineering, and worked on research related to multiphase flow in pipes and that has been one of my interests ever since.
And as I was doing my master’s, the second year of my master’s, I wasn’t quite finished, the chairman of the department called me one day and said, “We have a need for a faculty member to teach some courses. We know you’ve never done this before and you haven’t even finished your master’s, but we think you can teach these courses.” One of the faculty members had left. So I said… I had never thought of being in academics, so I said, “Well, all right then. I’ll do it.” So they appointed me as an instructor in petroleum engineering and I taught some courses. I loved working with students. They were not my age, but some of them older, some of them younger, and really enjoyed it.
But again, I was not sure if I want to be in the academics or work for industry. So I decided to go back to Pakistan and work again with the same company. Pretty exciting work, new system, designing and building and expanding gas distribution system. So I enjoyed it very much for about a year and half. But then this teaching bug kept coming back up. And so after about another year and a half of working in Karachi, I decided that really teaching for me was more exciting than the kind of work I was doing and I wanted to be in the academics. So I applied and got a scholarship at Rice University. I decided to switch to chemical engineering at that time because I had taken virtually all the courses I could take in petroleum engineering. I thought well, chemical engineering would give me a more solid background to work as a petroleum engineer, which was true. This was one of the best decisions I made. I came to Rice in Houston and did a PhD in Chemical Engineering.
As you probably gather, my life is just full of accidents. I really didn’t plan things so well. It’s just things happen. Just as I was finishing my PhD, I got a letter from the University of Calgary that they would like to offer me a teaching job. Some of the people I had worked with in Edmonton were in Calgary, and they knew me and so on. So I accepted that, and in 1965, I started teaching at the University of Calgary. It was just starting to build an engineering program in Calgary, so it was very exciting to build something from scratch, design all the courses, teach all the courses, and so on. So I was in Calgary until 1982, seventeen years. During that time, I was involved in starting two companies, one with a colleague of mine called Neotechnology Consultants. And this company dealt with building software for designing multiphase pipelines. We can talk about that a little later on. The second was… during my work in Calgary, I got interested in computer modeling and reservoir simulation because my work at Rice was related to computer modeling. So I got interested in that, so reservoir simulation was my second interest. So I was involved with founding a company by the name of Computer Modelling Group, which has a booth here, a very, very successful company now with offices all over the world. So I was involved in teaching, my research, plus involved in these two organizations.
In 1982, Stanford approached me and asked me if I would like to teach there. I ended up at Stanford in the Petroleum Engineering Department and had been there for 32 years and have done a lot of exciting things. I have had some wonderful students who have done some wonderful work. So that’s in a nutshell my story, but we can go back and talk about anything you like.
Absolutely. That was great. That was really good. Do you want to get a sip of water first before we start the next question?
Okay. Just now, you mentioned some of your work in multiphase flow in pipes. Can you please discuss your work in multiphase flow in pipes and how have your contributions in this area affected the industry?
It’s a good question. The reason I got interested in multiphase flow was that oil and gas and water are really produced together, and they have to be separated at some stage. But in the well, they all flow together. And in the early ‘60s when I was doing my master’s and later when I was at the University of Calgary, there were no really systematic design methods for multiphase pipeline. And at the same time, oil companies were moving more and more into offshore areas where it is very difficult to separate the oil and gas and water downhole, so you have a gathering system that has all three phases flowing together. So since I had done my master’s in this area, I had a reasonable background in it and I had kept up with the literature. And when I was in Calgary, I was also involved with my former advisor in writing a book on this which incidentally, it was published in 1972 called The Flow of Complex Mixtures in Pipes, and it’s now published as one of the SPE books and it’s in the bookstore downstairs, SEP Bookstore.
So with this background, I thought it would be useful to somehow make these design techniques that we have been working on available to industry on a wider scale, and this was also the time that computers were being used extensively or more and more in the industry. A colleague of mine, Gary Gregory, and I got together and we started writing software and we had some consulting opportunities to do actual designs for some of the oil companies, and we developed this software and established this company. It was probably, I’m not positive, probably the first company that provided multiphase flow pipeline design software for the industry and that software was widely used in Canada and the U.S., overseas, and different… North Sea, and so on. So I think it made a significant impact and this became especially important in the offshore fields and in the North Slope of Alaska, for example, where you have to design systems for multiphase pipeline. And this kind of technology had, I believe, a big impact.
What kind of problems did the software solve and what was it doing to help the engineers?
Yeah, good question again. The big question in designing single phase or multiphase pipeline is that knowing the difference in pressure at the two ends, how much fluid would flow through the pipeline. So in single phase, it’s relatively simple because you are only dealing with a single phase and the theory is well established and you can accurately calculate how much fluid would flow through, or if you specify how much fluid you want to flow through a pipeline and you know the pressure at one end, you want to be able to predict the pressure at the other end for the given flow rate.
But for multiphase flow, the problem is orders of magnitude more difficult because the theory is not well established and multiphase flow techniques rely significantly on experimental data, empirical correlations, and so on. So in Calgary when I was there, we built a very nice experimental system in our laboratory, a pipe about 100 feet long that could be tilted at different angles and we could flow multiphase flow through it, make measurements, and then use this information to develop predictive techniques that we could then implement in software. So the big challenge is really knowing how to predict pressure drop for a given flow rate or if you have the pressure drop in the pipeline, how much of each phase would flow through the pipeline.
What happens is that when the pipe is tilted at an angle, heavier phase like water would flow slower, and the gas because it’s lighter goes up faster. And the intermediate density phase, which is oil, would be in between the two. So this is called the slip phenomenon. Fluids are slipping past each other and this is a very important consideration in multiphase pipelines and we had to deal with this problem through a lot of techniques that we developed and we adopted a lot of techniques that other people had developed. So that was a big challenge. And this is a field that is still very active in terms of research and a lot of universities are doing research. A lot of oil companies are doing research. What we could not do in our laboratory was to deal with very large pipes. In the lab, you can only have small pipes. So all industry has done experiments with larger pipes and so on, and the technology has matured quite a bit, but there are still a lot of open questions as far as multiphase pipeline design is concerned. But I think we made an impact in offering to the industry tools that could be used for designing this kind of complex system.
That’s great, that’s wonderful. So my next question is, how does hydrocarbon fluid phase behavior affect nonconventional well modeling, and how has your work in this area impacted industry standards for modeling?
I have done some work in hydrocarbon phase behavior and it is very important because you have to be able to determine how much of each phase you would have at a given pressure and temperature. So in a pipeline, if you have gas and oil depending on what the pressure is, more or less gas would dissolve in the oil and that, of course, reduces the amount of gas and expands the oil, so you have to be able to predict that. I would say that this research in hydrocarbon phase behavior hasn’t been one of my major research areas although I have had some involvement in it and I have had students who worked in it, both at the University of Calgary and at Stanford, mainly because it is important not by itself but in other areas.
For example, in designing of pipelines, you have to be able to predict how much of each phase you would have at a given pressure and temperature. But it’s also very important in my other area of interest which is computer modeling or reservoir simulation where again, we need to be able to predict how much oil, how much gas we would have at a given pressure and temperature in the reservoir or a portion of the reservoir that is being modeled. So it’s important in that sense.
Please discuss your work in computer modeling and reservoir simulation and the impact that it has had on the industry.
My research at the University of Alberta was on multiphase flow in pipes and I did experimental work. So when I went to Rice in Houston in 1965, I thought now it would be interesting to do some research that involved the use of computers, computer modeling or numerical solution of equations that describe flow. So that is the area I worked in although it was not a problem directly related to petroleum engineering. So I worked in that area in my PhD research. When I came to Calgary in 1965, I had this background in solving equations that describe flow numerically on computers and so I was looking around to see what kind of problems would be interesting for industry in Calgary that I could work on and use my background in fluid mechanics and numerical solution and so on. So I thought well, we’d maybe work on modeling flow in petroleum reservoirs, which is really the start of computer modeling, which is now a very big business. There are many companies involved in it.
So I started researching this area in 1965 when I came to Calgary. In 1977, I started this company, Computer Modelling Group. Initially, it was a not-for-profit corporation supported by the Province of Alberta. We did some basic research on computer modeling and also with a special focus on heavy oil or very thick oils that Alberta has abundance of, tar sands and heavy oils. These oils require thermal recovery techniques. Heavy oils have to be heated somehow to make them flow. So we worked in these areas and developed some software for computer modeling of petroleum reservoirs. There again, phase behavior is very important and also started this Computer Modelling Group that I mentioned before.
With one of my former students, I wrote a book on reservoir simulation, a very, very good student by the name of Toni Settari and we are very, very good friends ever since. The book was published in ‘79. Again, we focused on fundamentals and the book for that reason is still in print and being sold. And I think this is one of the things I emphasized on my students, is that fundamentals don’t change and if you understand the fundamentals, if you focus on the fundamentals, then you can solve different problems. I mean, I’m not working on problems that I learned to solve in my college days. They are very different problems, but because of the strong background in fundamentals, you can move around and you can look at different problems. So reservoir simulation has been actually my major activity since I came to Stanford.
We have a consortium which I established in 1982 of companies. About 30 companies are members of this consortium, support this consortium, have been supporting it ever since I came to Stanford, and a lot of the techniques that we developed. We are not developing commercial software at the university. We make our technology, whatever tools and techniques we develop, freely available to industry. And industry companies like Schlumberger, Computer Modelling Group, these companies implement these techniques in their commercial software and that is beneficial, I think, for both sides and it has had a significant impact on improving this computer modeling technology. We also do work in collaboration with companies.
For example, some years ago, we saw the need to be able to more accurately predict how long horizontal wells behave. Because see, again, going back to the multiphase flow problem, in these horizontal wells, you have multiple phases flowing. Because these days, industry can drill very long horizontal wells, this problem became very important, to be able to predict again the pressure gradients and flow rates in these long horizontal wells. And so we did a project with Schlumberger where they made available their laboratory facilities in Cambridge, U.K. along with people who were experts in doing this experiment. For about a year or so, we collaborated on these experiments and we took all this massive amount of data that we had collected. We developed new tools, techniques for multiphase flow in long horizontal wells, then that we published.
Of course, Schlumberger, because they had sponsored all this work, had first knowledge about these. They implemented these techniques in their software and it’s available now through their software and other companies have also implemented it. So this is the way I have been working in collaboration with the industry looking at problems that are important to industry and then freely making available the results of our research to the industry.
What are some of the tools and techniques that you have developed that have aided computer modeling and software?
What new techniques we might have developed in computer modeling? There are a lot of them, a lot of them. Basically, in computer modeling of reservoir performance, you have very complex equations that need to be solved over time. So there are many issues related to the solution of these equations. Generally, the reservoir is divided up into blocks and these equations are applied to each block. They have to deal with flow between blocks and so on. So there are a lot of issues. That’s why we have been working for 30 years at Stanford and we have a group of 20 to 30 students that work on these problems all the time. So there are the issues of efficient solution techniques. These are equations, a large number of equations that have to be solved over and over again, how we can solve them very quickly and very efficiently.
This software that is developed has to be robust. How to handle heterogeneities in the reservoir, how to handle flow complexities near wells. So there are all these different issues. And when I got started in this area in 1965, reservoir simulation was not really part of the toolbox of a petroleum [industry]. More traditional tools were being used that did not involve this kind of numerical solution. But some of the major companies like Exxon Mobil and many other companies, they had research groups working on it, but it was not in common use by the practicing engineers. So through the years, through our work and work of other people and then work in research organizations, these tools became more and more useful to the industry. And now, no reservoir engineer would be able to work without having access to these tools. So it’s a huge change since 1965 to this time. It has been a huge change.
More recently, we have gotten involved in using the same techniques along with optimization techniques to see how we could optimize both field operations and field development. How can you control the wells in a field by using optimization techniques? So if you want to optimize something, you have to be able to predict how the controls will affect flow and so on. So reservoir simulation is still a very important underlying tool that you have to have. On top of that, if you want to optimize the whole system including pipes that bring the oil and gas and water to the surface, then you have to combine these models for multiphase flow in pipe, models for flow in the reservoir, and optimize the whole thing. So in a way, my two areas of research have merged together along with this new area of optimization and that’s one of the areas I am working on these days.
So you sort of discussed a little bit the consortia that you’ve worked with including SUPRI-B, which I think is what you specifically were just referring to. Can you discuss your work with SCRF [Stanford Center for Reservoir Forecasting]?
Well, I have been involved in several industrial consortia at Stanford and the first one was reservoir simulation and I am still very much involved in that, still going strong. The second consortium that I was involved in starting was this SCRF and this was started initially through a grant that we were able to secure from SOHIO. SOHIO does not exist anymore, but SOHIO had a competition on Centers of Excellence. They said they would give… I think it was one million dollars or something like that to universities for developing Centers of Excellence. And there were, I think, three centers that we’re going to support and we were able to secure money for one of these centers.
And the idea there was to be able to incorporate different types of data to build a geological picture of the reservoir. You can see that the geology would be very important in determining how fluids would flow. If you have low permeability rocks, fluid would flow slower. If you have high permeability rocks, faster. Of course, in the reservoir, we have all kinds of… we have barriers, we have fractures, we have all these things. So this particular consortium started out with just working with SOHIO but then when the SOHIO grant expired, we established a consortium that now has membership from all the major oil companies and some of the smaller oil companies. I am personally not involved with it anymore. I have drifted away into other areas, but the consortium is going very well and one of my colleagues, Jef Caers, runs that consortium. It has, again, produced some very, very useful techniques for the industry and they have seeped into where industry solves these different problems. So that was the second consortium.
The third consortium that I was involved in starting was on horizontal wells and advanced wells. And this consortium we started because horizontal wells were becoming more and more common and yet the technology for being able to predict the performance of horizontal wells was lacking. So we started this consortium which went on for 8, 10 years. I can’t remember. And during that time, I also got very interested in optimization and smart fields which is a hot area in the industry these days, the digital oil fields, E-fields, smart fields. They have all kinds of names for the same thing. And what it is is actually applying formal optimization techniques to both field development and field operations. So we have a consortium on that which is called Smart Fields Consortium that was the last consortium I was involved in starting at Stanford. Again, a very successful consortium. So we retired the horizontal well consortium because the need for some of the things we are working on did not exist, and these reservoir simulation and smart fields consortium could handle the problems related to advanced wells. So those are the two consortia that I am involved in right now, the reservoir simulation and smart fields.
That’s great, thank you. If you can maybe go into just a little bit more detail. I know you sort of described earlier some of the tools and techniques that were a result of somebody’s consortia, but are there anything that you can point to to say, “This is something that really had an impact”? In other words, what tools or techniques did you develop in these consortia that had a major impact specifically in the industry?
I think that the impact generally is not immediate. It maybe takes a year or two before the industry really assimilates the kind of research we do at the university. But in the area of reservoir simulation, we have developed techniques for solving the equations that describe flow that are making it possible for industry to solve these problems for larger and larger reservoirs and solve them more accurately, account for reservoir heterogeneity more accurately. So there are so many different aspects to reservoir simulation and we worked in so many different areas.
For example, the equations that we have to solve are nonlinear, so how do we solve nonlinear equations very fast without the system crashing? You don’t want the reservoir simulator to all of a sudden start giving you garbage. You want it to be working in a robust fashion. So we have worked on detail modeling of flow around wells, which is very important because the well is our only connection to the reservoir, so the details around the well are very important, how to divide up the reservoir into blocks which we call gridding, and what are the best ways of gridding the reservoir, new gridding techniques that can follow the geological features of the reservoir. We worked on that.
You mentioned phase behavior earlier. Phase behavior is also important, so how to do these phase behavior calculations more efficiently. So it’s not just… I can’t say, “Well, this little instrument, we designed and it solved this problem,” or “This camera we designed, it solved this problem.” It’s a whole bunch of things that kind of fit in to build this larger tool. And we worked on a lot of different aspects of that tool.
Thank you very much. I know that was sort of asking a little bit the same question, but I just wanted to get a little bit more detail on that, so thank you. Okay. Let me look at my questions here. Finally, are there any other contributions that you would like to discuss?
Well, I think the biggest contribution that I am proud of is some of my students. I think I’ve had the good fortune to work with some really bright students, lots of them. Many of them have become good friends. I mentioned earlier, I wrote a book with one of them and I have collaborated since then on many different things. So really for academics, research is more a byproduct. The real product is the students that we graduate and we learn from our students. I think an ideal arrangement between a faculty member and a student is we are both leaning from each other, not that one is giving and another is soaking up. So I have had students who have taught me more than I have taught them. So that’s really the excitement of academic life. And in addition to contributing to technology, that’s the most exciting part.
That’s really lovely. Moving on, which innovations or milestones in your discipline do you consider to have had the biggest impact on the industry and why?
Big innovations in my own research area or in general?
In your research area.
Well, I think both of the areas that I have worked on, multiphase flow in pipeline and reservoir simulation, are now central to developing oil fields, especially offshore oil fields. We would not be able to produce oil in an efficient manner, in an environmentally friendly manner from offshore fields or fields in the North Slope of Alaska or North Sea, and so on, if we were not able to predict performance of these fields through simulation. And that involves simulation about flow in the reservoir and through the multiphase production system. This, I think, has had a huge impact on the industry and the industry’s ability to produce.
Now, I cannot claim that I have solved all these problems. Many people in the oil industry and academia have worked on these things and it has all been integrated into developing fields in very hostile, complex environments, deep water, and the ocean with ice cover, and so on. So these tools are really the integral part of the industry now. Whereas, when I started working in these areas, these were not.
As I mentioned, I commercialized some of these things and worked on some of these things, but then others also contributed, and now they have become central to the way this industry works. And there are many companies here at the exhibition who are marketing software that is using some of the things we’ve developed, some of the things our colleagues at other universities have developed. Some of these techniques are also being used for modeling CO2 sequestration, an area that I am also working on a little bit and in nonconventional resource development like shale oil and shale gas. We are developing modeling techniques now for shale oil and shale gas. The problem is even more complex and eventually, we will have techniques that can predict the behavior of shale oil and shale gas wells and so on.
So there are a lot of challenges especially in the nonconventional. There are a lot of challenges. We don’t really fully understand how the oil or gas is trapped in these resources, how it’s released, and how it’s produced. So we have to try to understand the mechanism and then model them using numerical techniques that I mentioned earlier. And we are making use of the data, experimental data that others are obtaining and then incorporate this in our software. So that’s the kind of thing that we are doing right now.
What milestones in the industry in general do you consider to have had the biggest impact on the industry?
Milestones in my career?
Just in the industry in general. What do you think have had the biggest impacts on the industry?
I think the computers, availability of computers and the availability of engineers to make use of computer technology through the kind of things I have talked about, I think, has had the biggest impact. When I started out as an engineer, we did all of our calculations on slide rules. I don’t think most of the young engineers these days know what a slide rule is. And then these little hand calculators, little calculators with scientific functions and so on became available in the ‘80s. I remember getting the first HP calculator and I think I paid $700 or $800 for it. And this was a little calculator, and we thought we died and gone to heaven. This calculator could do what we were doing with the slide rule and more and so much faster. And then slowly, computers became more and more common and available and we started solving problems on computers. And now, we have the ability to economically use thousands of processors, very powerful computer processors to solve our problems in a very efficient way and very quickly.
And that is why it’s becoming possible to use optimization techniques to optimize controls on wells and so on. So I think all of this is only possible because we have the computational capacity to solve these complex equations. So that, I would say, has had the biggest impact. And along with that, of course, you have to have techniques that can solve these equations, especially numerical techniques that are suitable for computers. So there, we worked on those and they have had a huge impact. For example, in the ‘60s, there were publications and the literature from people that I have worked with and I admire very much. One of them is a very good friend of mine, Don Peaceman, who is now retired. He was one of the pioneers in this field in the ‘50s. So they were solving simple problems. And that’s one of the pictures I wanted to send you with Peaceman and one of his colleagues, Henry Rachford, solving the very early reservoir simulation problems on a computer. And I can see how primitive that looks these days compared to what we have today.
So the computers had a tremendous impact and I don’t think we are done yet. The cost of computing is going down. Our ability to make use of this technology is going up constantly. So through the use of computer technology, numerical techniques, and optimization, there is a huge gain possible. As you probably know from your other interviews, we leave more oil behind than we actually get out. You know that you have so many millions or billions of barrels but you can only get about a third of it out. So the rest of it cannot be produced economically. But as we learn more and more how to describe the heterogeneities in the reservoir, how to solve the equations for fluid flow, how to make use of optimization techniques, huge gains are possible. We have demonstrated this already in some actual fields, that you can gain a lot by using these technologies.
And the industry is adopting these technologies and most of the companies now have a group dealing with these optimization techniques, smart fields. That’s why they join our consortium because they have their own research groups. So they take what we developed, implement it in their fields. And the other way they take advantage of it is they hire our students who are already working on this. So that’s the best way to do technology transfer, just take the person who has done the research. And some of our students are now applying what they developed at the university in the field, a very large field, and developing new techniques based on their research at the university and at the company. So that’s how it keeps on going.
You sort of have touched on this a bit, but what do you consider to be some of the biggest challenges facing the industry in the future?
That’s a very important question, and I think there are certainly a lot of challenges. And the interesting thing is that as you overcome one challenge, it opens up new challenges. For example, being able to drill in deep water, then it opens up challenges on how to do this very safely, how to do this in an environmentally friendly manner, and so on. I think that, to me, is the biggest challenge, to produce oil and gas from deep offshore fields in an economical, environmentally friendly fashion. The industry, of course, realizes that and there is a lot of emphasis on that, but a lot more can be done. The impact on the environment has to be minimized. In the old days, in the 1850s and 1860s, when oil was produced, there were these operators who were dumping oil in water streams and so on. But we couldn’t possibly think that is the right thing to do now, and we want to be able to minimize.
And as we move into areas like-- North Slope, already we’re producing in North Slope, but other areas, offshore Alaska, for example, the problem gets more and more complex. The environmental concerns get more and more serious. We have to pay more and more attention to that. That’s the biggest challenges to produce oil and gas in an economical fashion with minimal impact on the environment. And we have to constantly work on that along with this challenge of not leaving more oil behind than we produce. How do we get them? This is changing some of the companies by applying some of the kind of technologies we talked about. I am now able to get 60 to 70 percent of the oil out but it’s happening slowly. And as these tools become more affordable for even smaller operators and so on, the engineers become smarter and smarter and they’ll be able to apply these things and produce far more than we are producing now from a given reservoir.
Very good. So you discussed offshore deep water, the challenges there. What specific challenges do you encounter in your area of expertise in deep water and in more hostile environments like the North Shore?
Well, the problem gets harder and harder as you go into this kind of hostile environments. First of all, drilling with a mile or two of water on top of the ocean floor and being able to drill vertically and then horizontally and reach the target precisely is a huge challenge. Now, we are not working on drilling techniques but I think for industry, it has been a huge challenge and the advancements that industry has made in this area are amazing. The technology is more complex and scientific questions are more complex than what we need to do to send a man to the moon or to even send a man to Mars. It’s just highly complex. Our industry is a very technologically-advanced industry and it’s solving this problem in collaboration with the research that is going on and their own companies and in universities and so on. So the specific challenge is being met and as we run out of easier and easier areas to produce oil from, the problem is going to get harder and harder. We go into deeper and deeper water. One of the things we don’t want is a disaster like the one in the Gulf of Mexico that BP had. And so there will be more and more safety procedures, automatic monitoring systems that would guard against that kind of a thing ever happening again. I think the industry is very conscious of that and working on that. So the challenges are the same. You are going to harder and harder areas and you want to do it as safely as possible. And our ability to monitor. We have now sensors on the wells, downhole, and surface. These sensors are constantly sending data and analyzing this data and being able to predict what is going to happen next. It’s going to make the whole system safer and safer.
In terms of multiphase flow, what challenges do you see coming ahead for working in, say, deepwater, ultra deepwater?
I have been involved in multiphase flow research now since the early ‘60s. And you would think that since then, our work and the work of other people in this area, and there are quite a few other people both industry and academia working on it, that we would have solved this problem, right? How long does it take to solve this problem? Unfortunately, our ability to accurately predict multiphase flow parameters, the pressure drop in multiphase flow pipeline is still not very accurate. So if you are not predicting the pressure drop for a given flow rate very accurately or pressure drop in a long horizontal well very accurately, you can make your own decisions. So that problem is still bothersome. It bothers me a lot.
And I think the only way to solve that problem would be collaboration with industry, between academia and industry. And we have done some of this. I mentioned we worked with Schlumberger in this area because universities cannot really afford to build large scale experiment. But we have a lot of talent and students to analyze data, to take this data and analyze it. One of the things I like to see and I hope it happens is that a lot of very good data are just kept confidential. They are filed away somewhere and not made available to people to develop new techniques. I hope there’s more collaboration between industry and academia to do these experiments, analyze the data, build more accurate techniques for predicting performance. And this will have, I think, a very important effect on how we operate offshore fields and so on, especially in deepwater.
Thank you, I appreciate that. You mentioned this a little bit earlier. Can you discuss the evolution of CO2 capture and sequestration and how you see it being used in the future?
Say that again?
Sure. Can you discuss the evolution of carbon dioxide capture and sequestration, and how do you see it being used in the future?
We don’t know what impact exactly CO2 is having on the atmosphere and heating of the atmosphere, but the consensus seems to be that CO2 is a major greenhouse gas and it is the cause of warming that is being noticed. While we are not sure how much impact CO2 is having, we also cannot ignore the fact that it may be having a large impact on the atmosphere. So we have to think about how we could capture and store CO2. Because we have been working on reservoir simulation already, we have been investigating how we could accurately model CO2 injection in deep aquifers and make sure that it does not escape back to surface.
And we have a major project currently being sponsored by Abu Dhabi National Oil Company on developing these techniques for CO2 sequestration in aquifers. There are other ways. People are looking at other aspects of this problem, other ways to sequester CO2 but our interest is primarily underground storage of CO2 in aquifers, mainly because that is an area we have some expertise in and we can leverage that expertise to look at this problem. Myself, and one of my colleagues, Hamdi Tchelepi, was a professor in the department along with some of our other researchers where we are looking at this problem. I think we can sequester CO2 safely in underground aquifers, but perhaps the cost is going to be substantial and we have to look at other ways to sequester CO2 as well. There are other people working on many other aspects of this problem.
What has made working in the petroleum engineering industry meaningful to you?
For me? Well, as I mentioned earlier, I have worked a bit in the industry but more in academia, but always I have had a very good link with the industry. I have always been interested in solving problems that are important for the industry and that is because I find this more exciting as an engineer to work on problems that would have an impact rather than problems that may not have an impact. So I worked always in collaboration with the industry. I worked on problems that I thought were important for the industry. And as a result, I have had extremely good support from industry throughout my academic career. From the day I started working as a professor to this day, the industry has been very supportive of my research. So this kind of work has really been very exciting for me. If it wasn’t exciting, I would have quit by now and done something different. But I continue to work on these problems, and I enjoy very much interacting with the young people on the one side and interacting with people in the industry who are working on similar problems and have similar interests. So this really defines our life really, what we do other than family life. This is our professional life. This kind of interaction with industry, especially through the Society of Petroleum Engineers, has been key to my profession and how I have lived my life. I have been a member of SPE now for 55 years, I think. That’s a long time [laughter]. I think the first SPE meeting I went to, there were about, I think, 500 people, 400 people in Dallas. Now, I don’t know how many we have here, probably 10,000 or more. So SPE has changed a lot but I still have friends who were at these meetings a long time ago and they still come to these meetings. So professional organizations, contacts with industry, contacts with students who bring new ideas and have new energies, this all defines my life.
What are some of your favorite memories about working in the industry?
Well, I think the exciting things are when you do something at the university and it becomes important for the industry. For example, when we developed this first software for multiphase flow pipeline design and all of a sudden, the industry was using that to design pipeline, that’s pretty exciting. So the first field we designed using that software, that was very exciting. Similarly, in the reservoir simulation area, the excitement comes when you are doing something and all of a sudden, it is also important for the industry and you see it implemented in commercial software and they are making use of it and it’s making a difference. There are many such episodes in my life where we have done something we thought was useful and industry has adopted it and made it a part of their toolbox and used it, and that’s exciting. There are some things we do, they don’t find their home in the industry and that’s part of life. You can’t have everything that’s exciting. Some things are more exciting than others.
We are here at our last question. How has being an SPE member affected your work?
As I mentioned earlier, I have been a member of SPE for 55 years and this has been the main avenue for my contacts with industry and with colleagues and other universities. Without this kind of opportunity to interact with people in the industry, presenting papers on research that we were doing and getting the input from people in the industry, without this kind of interaction, I don’t think I would have reached the kind of professional stage that I have reached. I think this has been a key. A professional organization like SPE is a key to the professional development of people like myself in academia or young people who are entering industry. So it has been crucial for me.
That’s why I have devoted a lot of my time to volunteer for activities of the society. I have been on the board of directors of the society. I have been a distinguished lecturer for the society. I have organized many conferences and I continue to do that. I have just finished a conference in Istanbul last month which dealt with computer modeling of very large reservoirs. Some of these reservoirs these days are huge. Saudi Arabia has one field that in aerial extent is larger than Lebanon, for example [laughter]. So these very large fields have new challenges to model. So we have organized a conference in Istanbul this year and two years ago, we had a similar conference in Istanbul. So I still continue to work on helping organize these, working with people in the industry to organize such conferences. So I have been involved in a lot of activities of the society in addition to attending meetings and publishing papers in SPE literature. I have been the executive editor of one of the journals. I have served in the editorial committees of many journals.
It has been crucial really. It’s kind of the glue that binds everything together and without this kind of an organization, we would be an academia fooling around with things and the industry would be doing its thing and we would really have no means of interacting and exchanging ideas and learning. I mean, I want to work on problems that are important for industry. So if I don’t interact with people from industry, I can’t do that.
This is where the society comes in. To me, it’s been very important and not only important professionally but it’s also been lots of fun. I made friends. Now, I come to this annual meeting not just for the technical papers but I want to continue seeing my old friends. This is an opportunity to interact with them, see what they’re doing, and sometimes you learn new things from them, sometimes you help them, and so on. You run into your students who have now become big shots in the industry, and you take pleasure in seeing them and their success. So it’s all fun.
That’s wonderful. Thank you so much for coming and agreeing to be a part of our oral history project.
Thank you, thank you very much.