UH Engineering Researcher Awarded $2.6 Million Grant to Develop New Material for Offshore Drilling

A University of Houston civil engineering researcher has received a $2.6 million grant to develop a new type of “smart” cement that could make offshore drilling safer.

Cumaraswamy “Vipu” Vipulanandan is working on developing a material that offshore oil rig operators could use to monitor the health of a well during its construction as well as throughout its operational life.

The non-profit Research Partnership to Secure Energy for America (RPSEA) awarded the three-year grant to Vipulanandan under its contract with the U.S. Department of Energy. Baker Hughes, a Houston-based oilfield services firm, is contributing $500,000 more to the research project. Vipu

Vipulanandan wants to create a material that is more “sensitive” than the standard drilling mud and cementing slurry used by operators to construct and form offshore wells. Slurry cement is a mixture of water, cement and fine sand in a certain ratio that is usable to fill gaps and voids and for other repairs.

Offshore oil producers face a variety of extreme factors, from widely varying temperatures to very high pressures to extremely corrosive seawater. The wells also are basically inaccessible; meaning monitoring their overall health is another major challenge.

Vipulanandan is working on adding new materials to the slurry, including nano-scale particles of calcium, silica and iron. Other modifiers include polymers, coupling agents, water-reducing agents, particle fillers and admixtures.

These additions, he said, will turn the drilling mud and cementing slurry into piezomaterials, meaning their electrical properties will change when they encounter mechanical stresses, temperature changes and chemical reactions.

“It’s sort of like your skin. When someone touches your skin, you can feel it. You can feel the pressure,” he said.

During a well’s construction, electrical leads will be placed in the outer casing of the well. As the slurry is poured to form the inner wall of the well, the sensors will be used to monitor how quickly the slurry is hardening, how much of the well has been completed and if the process is going as planned.

“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. “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.”

The new cementing mixture also will allow operators to monitor operational wells, since it will retain its piezoresistive nature after the slurry hardens. When the hardened cement encounters a mechanical stress or strain, the technology’s sensing and monitoring capabilities will make it easy to detect and locate structural problems, such as a crack in the cemented well.

Vipulanandan’s collaborators on the grant include Ramanan Krishanmoorti, chair of UH’s department of chemical and biomolecular engineering

About the University of Houston

               The University of Houston is a Carnegie-designated Tier One public research university recognized by The Princeton Review as one of the nation’s best colleges for undergraduate education. UH serves the globally competitive Houston and Gulf Coast Region by providing world-class faculty, experiential learning and strategic industry partnerships. Located in the nation’s fourth-largest city, UH serves more than 39,500 students in the most ethnically and culturally diverse region in the country.