University of Houston researcher and professor of civil engineering Cumaraswamy Vipulanandan has been awarded a $2.5 million grant for the development of “smart” cement, which will pave the way for improvements in offshore drilling and cementing.
The award is a three-year grant funded by the Research Partnership to Secure Energy for America, a part of the Department of Energy. An additional $500,000 has been awarded by Baker Hughes, an oilfield services company based in Houston.
Joseph Tedesco, dean of the Cullen College of Engineering, is excited by the prospect of the University getting involved in a larger national project.
“This award definitely demonstrates UH’s strengths in materials, engineering and structures as it relates to our ongoing national need to expand exploration and production but in a safe and secure way,” Tedesco said.
The material will be added to the slurry and drilling mud used in offshore oil rigs. This will allow builders and operators to better monitor the inside of a well, which is not easily accessible.
“We are developing a sensing material, which has never been done before,” Vipulanandan said.
The material will enhance the safety of the drilling and cementing mixtures that are used today. Due to the inaccessibility of the underwater oil wells, keeping up with their integrity is difficult. Vipulanandan wants to make sure his new technology not only works but is practical.
“I think that with the new technologies, they can do a better job of monitoring and make sure some of the losses they may encounter are minimized,” Vipulanandan said. “We are going to optimize all the important parameters so that they can use it in the field.”
The material will be able to detect changes in the structure, temperature and chemical reactions of the offshore oil wells. The composition of the material will be used during the construction of aforementioned underwater wells and help with monitoring throughout the well’s operational life.
“Sometimes there is a crack in the deep rock formation that allows the slurry to escape. Since the company constructing the well cannot monitor this process, it may take a long time to realize there is a problem,” Vipulanandan said in a UH press release. “With this new technology, the sensors will show quickly that the slurry level is not rising. That way the builder can halt construction and start working on a solution.”
While originally partially funded by an oilfield company and meant for said purpose, Vipulanandan’s technology can solidify better safety measures in other similarly dangerous situations.
“The development of new methods and materials for structural health monitoring is incredibly important when it comes to the construction and maintenance of energy-related structures such as offshore wells and nuclear power cooling towers,” Tedesco said.
Vipulanandan is also the director of the Center for Innovative Grouting Materials and Technology, an affiliation of UH’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, which develops a better understanding of grouting materials and how they can be used in civil and environmental settings.