Energy Sector Innovation Brings Top Prize for Mechanical Engineer

Cockrell School of Engineering professor Vaibhav Bahadur and his team took home the top prize at the Society of Petroleum Engineers (SPE) R&D competition for the development of a new electrical technology that could ensure uninterrupted oil and gas production in challenging environments. Bahadur and his team received the award at the 2014 SPE Annual Technical Conference and Exhibition in Amsterdam, Netherlands.

Large-scale fouling of pipelines and equipment is a common problem in oil and gas production. This problem becomes critical when it occurs in deep-water environments, because of the enormous costs of deferred production and maintenance. At present, copious amounts of chemicals are used to prevent deposition of hydrates, waxes, asphaltenes and scales in flowlines and equipment. In addition to the huge costs of deploying chemical treatment programs, such solutions also have a large negative environmental footprint, and pose safety and regulatory issues.

To help find a better solution, Bahadur is pursuing a radically different approach that involves the use of electricity to water — wet a surface and create a water film on the inner surfaces of pipelines and equipment, which will protect the surface from internal deposits without using chemicals.

vaibhav bahadur

Vaibhav Bahadur, mechanical engineering professor

“This is a completely new approach to solving the age-old problem of solid deposits in hydrocarbon production. We are solving a chemistry problem by using electrical engineering techniques. Such an approach has not been tried before, and we have good preliminary results,” said Bahadur, who is an assistant professor in the Cockrell School’s Department of Mechanical Engineering. “When successful, this could lead to a one-stop solution for many complicated deposition problems.”

Ultimately, this technology is aimed at reducing the cost of hydrocarbon production by eliminating the capital, operating and safety-related expenses associated with chemical solutions. The technology also has multiple applications in midstream (crude oil transportation) and downstream (refineries) sectors.

The potential impact of this innovation made it stand out among 40 other technological ideas at SPE’s competition. The competition was targeted at harnessing ideas on “how to disrupt industry’s status quo with new ways of attacking exploration and production’s grand challenges, often with methods from outside the industry,” according to the society’s newsletter.

How the technology works

The technology exploits the contrasting electrical properties of water versus hydrocarbons. When an electrical voltage is applied to a surface, it electrically attracts water toward that surface, which drives away hydrocarbons and prevents deposits. This technology also offers real-time electrical control options to respond to changing production conditions. Additionally, corrosion can be prevented by adding a thin insulating coating on the surface.

Electrical systems are already used in the oil and gas industry. Cathodic protection systems and electrostatic coalescers rely on electricity to prevent corrosion and separate oil-water mixtures respectively. The UT Austin team’s technology targets the use of electricity for much wider ranging applications to enable greener and safer hydrocarbon production.

Moving forward, Bahadur will continue his efforts to understand the more intricate details of this technology. Chris Galvin, a mechanical engineering graduate student on Bahadur’s team, is working toward a lab-scale demonstration of this technology. The team plans to mature the technology to the point where it can be field-tested by industry.

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