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Moving Ahead: Engineering Challenges of Deep Water Drilling and Future Oil Resource Recovery

09/28/2010 4:15 PM E14"674
Andrew J. Whittle, ScD '87, Professor, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering; Nancy Leveson, Professor, Aeronautics and Astronautics; Roland Pellenq, Visiting Professor, Civil and Environmental Engineering; Kim Vandiver, Dean for Undergraduate Research & Professor, Mechanical Engineering

Description: To keep up with demand, the oil industry ventures increasingly farther and deeper offshore, extracting resources as fast as possible in often hazardous conditions with newly minted technology. So to these panelists, the BP Deepwater Horizon accident did not come as a complete surprise. However, they view the disaster from distinctly different perspectives.

"The same things happen all the time" in major accidents, states Nancy Leveson. There are flaws in the "safety culture" of the industry, including a sense that its enterprise is inherently "more risky" and accidents inevitable --"the price of production." Leveson notes that "being 35 thousand feet in the air in a metal cylinder is not a safe thing, but the commercial aerospace industry has made it safe." Industry leaders don't believe that safety pays and consequently they merely comply with regulations. Rather than seeking systemic fixes, they blame operator error or technical failure. Nevertheless, says Leveson, "Complex systems migrate toward states of high risk, so the oil industry should "must change its culture" and implement safeguards. "We can't make things perfectly safe but we can make them a lot safer than they are."

Cement, used for thousands of years in construction, is only now revealing its secrets to scientists. Roland Pelenq is interested in how cement responds chemically, and at the atomic scale, to extremes in pressure and temperature, such as those found in the depths of offshore drilling sites. He speculates that mistakes in cement formulation might lead to calamitous structural flaws. A specific cement chemistry (calcium and silica primarily) determines the setting process. Ordinary cement grows from liquid to solid in 10 hours, as nano"sized bricks line up in layers. Oil well cement must be mixed with a different ratio of calcium and silica, or it won't cohere correctly when deep under water. Pelenq says, "If I'm a cement guy working for the oil industry, I want setting as fast as possible." The industry uses extra silica to speed up the process. But, suggests Pelenq, with the Deepwater Horizon well, "the setting process kinetics may not have worked."

Kim Vandiver offers a brief tour of tension leg platforms, the highly complicated and enormous structures developed to get oil out of Gulf waters. While the "feet are quite elastic," says Vandiver, wave energy can lead to stress. This technology becomes really susceptible to vibration at depths of around a mile -- the kind of depth the Deepwater Horizon rig was drilling in. As the oil industry drills deeper, it means "from the point of view of production technology always operating on a frontier," says Vandiver. He is working on a dynamic absorber for tension leg platforms so they can take the stress of ocean current and pressure 6,000 feet down, much the way a tall building can be reinforced to withstand high winds. Vandiver comments that the relentless drive to extract oil as fast as possible from ever deeper water flows from our "insatiable demands on the product." He concludes, "To slow down the industry and make progress more carefully, practice more conservation."

About the Speaker(s): Andrew Whittle received his B.Sc. 1981, from the Imperial College of Science and Technology, and his Sc.D. in 1987, from MIT.

His research focuses on geotechnical engineering, constitutive models for geomaterials, analysis methods for foundations, excavations and tunnels,in situ test methods, and ground improvement.

Whittle has received the J. James R. Croes Medal from the American Society of Civil Engineers.

Host(s): School of Science, Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences

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