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Knowledge Co-Creation - Profiles of researchers

Contributing to Japan's petroleum engineering technologies through expert knowledge obtained through global experience

Nobuo Morita
Professor of the Faculty of Science and Engineering, Waseda University

Diagnosing the unseen underground conditions

Petroleum engineering is an extremely broad research field which is treated as a single academic discipline in America. Petroleum engineering is a comprehensive field containing a variety of academic subjects such as rock mechanics, numerical modeling, production engineering, reservoir engineering and petroleum economics. The central theme of the field concerns technology for assessment and diagnosis of phenomena that occurs several thousand meters underground. Of course, it is impossible to actually see conditions which exist deep underground. Therefore, underground conditions are diagnosed by measuring pressure and flow at a well on the earth's surface. This information is then analyzed using experience and numerical models.

When drilling for petroleum and natural gas, and when producing and injecting fluids and gas, the ground is subjected to an enormous force which is enough to move Mt. Fuji. In addition to the surrounding environment, great influence is exerted on the oil field and casings. Therefore it is necessary to predict changes through precise calculations. Beneath the Kanto Field, a great amount of methane gas has dissolved into water and lays dormant. The gas consumption of Tokyo could be largely covered by pumping out water and producing dissolved gas. such an operation would cause subsidence and low-altitude areas such as Koto-ku district would be subjected to flooding by sea water. Therefore, the amount of water pumped out of the ground is controlled and used only for small-scale hot springs.

Subsidence in response to changes in pressure underground

Venice is subjected to worse flooding every year and it is said that the city will someday sink into the sea. The main cause of this flooding is the mining of large amounts of natural gas from surrounding areas by Italian oil companies. Another major cause is how a large number of wells have been established and underground water has been pumped to the surface since long ago. These factors have caused land sinkage. Currently, all gas mining in the Venice region has been stopped and water is being injected underground in an attempt to restore the ground surface to previous levels. Although these efforts have been somewhat successful, Venice is also subjected to rising water levels due to global warming, and it is said that the city will probably sink in the future.

I have specialized in petroleum engineering since I studied in undergraduate school at university. I studied in a mining engineering department, so I had a choice between specializing in petroleum or coal. At the time, I was a member of a university yacht club wishing that I could someday participate in work performed in the ocean. Therefore, I selected petroleum engineering, a field in which work is performed more often on the sea than on the land. After graduation, I studied abroad at the University of Texas in America. The University of Texas is recognized throughout the world as a top-class institution in the field of petroleum engineering. I received a scholarship and obtained my Master's Degree and PhD during four-and-a-half years of study. Afterwards, I served at the university in positions such as a post-doctoral researcher and a fulltime engineer. In total, I was affiliated with the University of Texas for 9 years. At university, I sometimes served in place of faculty and gave lectures to undergraduate classes. However, I felt that native-level English ability is necessary in order to conduct satisfying lectures. This was a factor in my decision to leave the university and obtain employment at Conoco DuPont, which was the world's 7th largest oil company.

Almost all petroleum and natural gas is mined in offshore or shoreline areas.

Reasons for successful rescue in the Chile mining accident

During my time at Conoco DuPont, I was stationed at a research center in Oklahoma. I spent 9 months of the year conducting research activities at the center, 1 month performing field surveys, and was given the freedom to work at other major oil companies during the remaining 2 months. One feature of the petroleum industry is that not much emphasis is placed on corporate secrets. Companies believe that they will achieve merits when researchers accumulate great amounts of experience and refine their skills. As a result, I have experience working in projects at more than 150 oil fields throughout the world. My work was centered in European countries such as Norway, England, Italy and France, but I was also stationed in Southeast Asia and South America. Even in America, there are not many petroleum engineers who possess this amount of experience.

In order to efficiently mine resources which lay dormant deep underground, compact triaxial experimental equipment and field data are used to measure the destruction and warping of rock and to assess physical behavior.

Although there have been advancements in technology, we still have not established diagnostic technology capable of complete assessment for underground phenomena. Ground conditions are completely different depending on the mining site. Complex factors are interwoven and become increasingly complex with the passage of time. Although a variety of calculation models have been developed, petroleum engineering is a field in which the human know-how of veteran specialists is extremely important for making accurate assessment. There is great value in the experience, knowledge and skill capable of assessing underground phenomena as if such phenomena were visible to the human eye, as well as in the ability to accurately read associated data. When mining, a successful initial effort can save millions or billions of yen in costs.

Recently, a miraculous rescue took place during the mining accident in Chile. During the rescue effort, the President of Chile led a team of specialists in the simultaneous implementation of 3 rescue plans, Plan A, B and C. In the initial phase prior to these rescue plans, about a dozen extremely small boring machines were used to drill holes in order to search for survivors. Three of the boring machines penetrated the ceiling of the area in which survivors had taken refuge. The presence of survivors became apparent when letters were found taped to the withdrawn drills of the boring machines.

It was fortunate that boring machines succeeded in opening 3 holes. One of the holes was used to supply food, one was used for communication, and the remaining hole was continually widened for use in the rescue efforts. The widening of the hole was lead by the President of the American drilling machine manufacturer whose equipment was used to drill the initial hole. An all-out effort was put into the rescue operation, with larger boring machines being brought from distant locations and a highly reliable tool pusher being summoned from Afghanistan. The widening of this hole was classified as Plan B, and it was the first hole to achieve a width sufficient for enabling rescue operations. Since widening was performed for a hole which had already been drilled, cutting generated during the widening process could simply be dropped down the hole. Therefore, it was possible to widen the hole from 14 cm to 30 cm and finally to 70 cm at an extremely fast pace.

Plan A consisted of bringing in a mid-sized boring machine with a height of approximately 4 meters from a nearby mine. This machine was then used to gradually widen a 14 cm hole to a diameter of 60 cm or more. Plan A was scheduled for completion around Christmas. Plan C consisted of bringing in a large boring machine used when drilling for oil. This machine was then used to steadily drill a hole with an initial diameter of 70 cm. Plan C also proceeded at a fairly fast pace and would have been completed about 3 weeks after the actual rescue operation. The greatest reason for success of Plan B was that the President of the manufacturing company assumed a leading role and worked passionately to advance the rescue mission.

Returning to Japan from America at age 50

I was blessed with outstanding superiors at Conoco DuPont. I received high evaluation for the academic knowledge and ability which I had acquired during many years of training at university. During that time, I was fortunate that not many staff members even at major American oil companies were capable of skillfully using the finite difference method, the finite element method and the boundary element method which were the major methods of numerical modeling. As a result, my career progressed at a rapid pace and I was promoted to the high position of Research Fellow. The only higher-ranked position was that of Senior Research Fellow, a rank which is held by professionals who have abilities worthy of the Nobel Prize. Therefore, I was very satisfied with my position.

Employees have the option of honorable retirement at age 50. Employees who take this option are treated the same as internal employees even after retirement. Therefore, about 10 percent of employees accept honorable retirement and embark on a new life. I also chose to take advantage of this system, retiring at age 50 and transferring to the Department of Resources and Environmental Engineering at Waseda University. I had been able to achieve my objectives in America, and I decided that the goal for my new life would be to advance the technology of the petroleum industry in Japan.

Steel pipes established deep underground move while changing shape together with the rock. During production, there are cases in which the rock containing oil/gas is destroyed, resulting in a flow of sand which destroys aboveground equipment. The laboratory of Professor Morita has developed models which are used at oil companies throughout the world. These models include sand production model, a well stability analysis model, a casing stability analysis model and subsidence model.

In recent years, core Japanese industries such as automotives, electronics and machinery have been shaken by global warming and the scarcity of resources in Japan. Environmental and energy issues are being given close attention as priority projects of the Japanese government. Approximately 15% of the crude oil consumed in Japan is imported by Japanese oil companies. However, Japanese technology is not comparable to global standards, and Japan has only been able to obtain poor leases such as small oil fields and small gas fields which are not appealing to major oil companies. The price of oil has increased by a dramatic 8.5 times during the last 10 years. It is necessary for Japan to keep pace with the world by achieving efficient production of energy and by refining high-level technological ability for reducing environmental load.

It is sometimes said the oil resources will be completely depleted in 40 years. However, mining will be possible for more than 200 years when including heavy oil which was not previously counted, oil which exists with tight rock, and oil which has hardened to a coal-like state. In the case of coal, sufficient deposits exist to provide power for more than 250 years. Therefore, energy resources will not be depleted during the next 500 years. Even so, these resources exist in limited quantity. It is believed that approximately 250 years are required until it will be possible to obtain large amounts of energy from nuclear fusion. Therefore, until that time, specialists in resource engineering must efficiently utilize energy resources to ensure that current standards of living are maintained.

Simulation of an underground CO2 reservoir

Practical technology is being developed for the deep underground injection of CO2, a substance generated when burning hydrocarbons. This technology will prevent any further acceleration in global warming. My laboratory focuses on modeling for the underground injection of CO2. We analyze which methods of injecting CO2 into ground layers will result in destabilization of the ground and create faults which result in CO2 leaking aboveground. Through such analysis, we create numerical models for the evaluation of appropriate conditions and conditions to be avoided.

Studying for 40 hours a week even in undergraduate school

In conjunction with summer research, the Morita laboratory participated an annual international conference (ATCE) sponsored by the Society of Petroleum Engineers (SPE). This photograph shows the presentation of theses by students at the 2010 international conference (Florence, Italy).

At my laboratory, I ask that undergraduate students study a minimum of 40 hours a week. I require at least 50 hours of studying per week in the case of students in the Master's Program and at least 60 hours from Doctoral students. I also recommended studying abroad in America for motivated and outstanding students. Students from around the world come to America in order to studying petroleum engineering. These students are highly motivated and it is normal for them to study for 80 to 90 hours per week. However, it seems difficult to request that amount of effort from current Japanese university students.

Even in Japan, there is a high demand in employment of petroleum engineering students. Every year, a large number of students express the desire to enter graduate school. However, I instruct students to search for employment at the same time. If students receive an employment offer from a quality corporation, then I recommend that they acquire actual work experience before entering graduate school. I believe that there are many merits in obtaining corporate sense before entering graduate school.

Although this is my first experience instructing Japanese students, my parents were school teachers and I feel very comfortable with the role of instructor. In addition to guiding the study of my students, I also enjoy going on ski trips and climbing mountains with my young and energetic students.

Nobuo Morita
Professor of the Faculty of Science and Engineering, Waseda University

Completed the Doctoral Program at the University of Texas Graduate School in 1974 (PhD). After serving as a Senior Researcher at the University of Texas, became a Researcher at Conoco DuPont from 1982. During the same period, also served as a Technical Advisor at oil companies such as Statoil, Norsk Hydro, Eni, and Petroleum of Venezuela (PDVSA). Presented with the U.S. National Committee Rock Mechanics Award in 1989. Since 1995, has served as a Professor at the Waseda University School of Science and Engineering, Department of Resources and Environmental Engineering. Holds a large number of positions as Chairperson/member on committees of the following organizations: Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry; Japan Oil, Gas and Metals National Corporation (JOGMEC); Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology (JAMSTEC). Additionally, also serves as an Advisor for a number of major oil companies.

WASEDAResearch Promotion Division, Waseda University  http://www.waseda.jp/rps/