Q&A: UH physicist keeps on making waves with seismic work


Professor and physicist Arthur Weglein, recipient of the SEG’s Maurice Ewing Medal. | Courtesy of Arthur Weglein

Arthur Weglein, UH professor and physicist, continued his acclaimed streak when his seismic research made him the recipient of the highest honor from the Society of Exploration Geophysicists.

The Cougar sat down with Weglein to talk about his latest accomplishment.

The Cougar: You have recently been awarded the 2016 Maurice Ewing Gold Medal. What does this mean to you and your career?

Arthur Weglein: This is a tremendous honor and I am deeply grateful to the SEG for this award, and to my family, my colleagues, our students and our sponsors. I am humbled and far beyond mere words to express my gratitude and appreciation for my great good fortune and the joy and happiness in my life.

TC: Did you always want to be a physicist? How did you choose this profession?

AW: I wanted to be a physicist since I took my first undergraduate physics class at the City College of New York. My professor in that class was Professor Martin Tiersten, a brilliant theoretical physicist and a very rare, extraordinary and truly inspiring teacher.

TC: You began your career in the industry before coming to UH’s College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics in 2000. After 15 years as a faculty member, how has UH influenced your career and successes?

AW: UH provides an excellent educational and research environment that is absolutely essential for encouraging the visions of what might be possible and then nurturing and maturing those new and more capable methods. When successful, that delivers the next generation of step improved high impact seismic methods and capability. The entire process to develop and deliver a fundamentally new seismic capability can take between ten to fifteen years. During that long gestation period that new ideas require to be delivered, the previously developed and more mature projects can reach a delivery stage and help pay the rent.

TC: How does seismic exploration work?

AW: Traditional seismic methods treat each recorded wave separately and require significant information about the Earth above a target or reservoir to provide the location and delineation of a petroleum reservoir. With the industry’s trend for more complex onshore and offshore plays, there is an increased inability to provide required information about the subsurface of the Earth. That inability to provide the subsurface information needed for current seismic processing methods to be effective is a major factor and contributor to seismic breakdown and drilling failures.

The seismic methods that derive from the inverse scattering series differ from current conventional seismic processing in two ways. One, they treat the entire recorded wave train and all the seismic recorded events taken collectively together at once, and not having each distinct arriving wave being treated in isolation and on its own. And two, absolutely no subsurface information is required for achieving any seismic processing objective. Mission-Oriented Seismic Research Program (M-OSRP) has pioneered the delivery of seismic methods from the inverse scattering series that can be effective without requiring any subsurface information.

TC: Why do seismic methods fail?

AW: The objective of seismic exploration is to extract and use the information contained in the recorded reflection data to make inferences relevant to the location and production of hydrocarbons. All scientific methods make assumptions, and have requirements and prerequisites. When the assumptions behind seismic processing methods are satisfied the methods are effective. When the assumptions behind seismic methods aren’t satisfied the methods will be ineffective or will fail. Seismic dysfunction, breakdown and failure contributes to poor, ineffective and suboptimal drilling decisions.

TC: How do we know there are seismic failures?

AW: Only one in ten frontier exploration wells in the Gulf of Mexico is successful, at $300 million per well. Identifying and responding to the most significant and pressing seismic exploration shortcomings and challenges, behind that drill success rate reality, is what our group, M-OSRP, at UH is all about. M-OSRP is a fundamental directed research group that starts with the problem that needs to be solved. It isn’t a method looking for a problem. Once a problem is identified, M-OSRP works to create and nurture new embryonic concepts and methods and then tests, evaluates, and delivers algorithms and solutions.

To provide a significant new and higher level of seismic effectiveness requires stepping outside and beyond  conventional mainstream seismic thinking, concepts and vision and taking a frank and forthright look at current seismic methods and capability.

TC: In your opinion, does fracking do any harm to the environment? What kind?

AW: I suggest anyone interested in a balanced, well-documented and informed opinion on this subject to consult, The American Petroleum Institute. The petroleum industry plays an essential and pivotal role in our energy, economic and national security—currently and into the future. The petroleum industry is essential to our well-being and serves and supports our free, democratic and exceptional nation. Our petroleum industry is deserving of our respect, admiration and appreciation.

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