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Drilling Simulator Will Allow UW to Expand Courses, Provide Industry With Experience

January 14, 2013

A Drilling Simulator Teaching Lab is expected to expand course offerings in engineering at the University of Wyoming, provide students and industry personnel drilling experience, and will eventually offer professional well control certifications for drillers.

The 1,296-square-foot lab, expected to open this fall on the second floor of the new Energy Innovation Center, will provide UW students with the full simulated experience of drilling oil reservoirs.

“A number of oil companies do the same thing,” says David Bagley, head of the UW Department of Chemical and Petroleum Engineering. “It’s really a good way to train people. Drilling now has become so much more advanced.”

The lab, which includes a raised rig floor, can be separated with a partition to include a classroom and a laboratory, says Merl Haworth, UW’s associate director of facilities planning. In addition to the $1 million drilling simulator (WPX Energy has provided the funding) with a classic console station, Bagley says the department is purchasing 20 software licenses for drilling simulation software to run on computer stations.

“You can have one student sit at the full simulator with all of the bells and whistles, and you can have the other students sitting at the computers,” Bagley says.

“A simulator provides the opportunity to experience and appreciate what ‘could go wrong’ in a drilling operation and well design,” says Joe Leimkuhler, vice president of drilling for LLOG Exploration in Covington, La., and a 1987 UW graduate with a master’s degree in petroleum engineering. “A simulator is an excellent tool to develop the skills to ‘expect the unexpected.’”

Other laboratory equipment will include a series of panels and screens, drilling controls, drilling gauges, a remote choke, a BOP console, a surface diverter, and choke and standpipe manifolds, Bagley says.

“Although other U.S. universities are using full-size rig floor simulators with the 3-D graphics, your university will be the first in the U.S. to have a brand new DrillSIM-5000,” says Ed Ramsay, sales and marketing director for Drilling Systems (UK) Limited.

According to its client list, the company has provided drilling simulator systems to a few American educational institutions, including Texas A&M University, University of Texas at Austin, Louisiana State University and the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.

Expanding the curriculum

While the Drilling Simulator Lab will provide training opportunities UW students have not had previously, it also provides the potential for those same students to receive more knowledge in the classroom that they can apply hands-on.

“This is not just buying a piece of equipment. It’s how we implement this into the curriculum,” says Bagley, who formed a departmental committee to explore such options.

The laboratory will be used for the Basic Drilling course, which is currently the only class UW offers on the subject. The new laboratory also will be utilized as part of the Drilling Fluids Laboratory course. The This second-floor space, which includes a raised tile floor and a partition to separate the room, will house the Drilling Simulator Teaching Lab. simulator will include a package that allows students to design the drilling fluid properties (density, viscosity and components) to remove rock chips during drilling. The drilling fluids cool the drill bit and transport the drill cuttings out of the well, Bagley says.

“The reason you have a separate course for this is that the design, preparation and maintenance of the drilling fluids needed to drill successfully is pretty special,” Bagley says. “In the lab, the students actually prepare the drilling fluids, measure properties of fluids and conduct computer simulations.”

The engineering program has a course called Advanced Drilling Engineering on the books, but currently there are no faculty members to teach it. In addition, Bagley says the department wants to develop an elective “well control” course that also would utilize the Drilling Simulator Lab.

“We have two courses now where we would use the new lab and we hope to get two more courses started,” says Bagley. “We have two faculty searches under way now. The plan is, with these hires, that one of them will become the person in the department and the university who manages the drilling simulator.”

Bagley hopes the Drilling Simulator Teaching Lab will raise the profile of UW’s engineering program and put it in the ranks of Colorado School of Mines and Texas A&M University, which both have similar laboratories.

Offering professional certifications

In addition to expanding course opportunities for students, the new laboratory will eventually offer professional well control certification for industry onshore drillers and rig crews.`

“This will be very helpful for the state,” Bagley says.

While the driller who actually runs the rig does not require a certification, the drilling supervisor and the drilling contractor’s supervisor do require a well control certification, according to Leimkuhler, who has 31 years’ experience in the oil exploration industry. While state level requirements vary, the majority of companies that drill onshore have requirements for critical staff to hold a valid well control certification that includes a 30-percent simulator training time requirement, he says.

“Well control is always a must,” Leimkuhler says. “If the driller inadvertently drills into an area of high pressure, he needs to know how the well will react; what the early warning signs are; and what actions need to be taken to ensure control of the well is quickly established.”

“A simulator is an excellent way to test the skills of the driller and, even more important, verify the integrity of the engineers’ well design,” he adds. “Simulator training is a way to safely throw ‘curve balls’ at the drill crew and the engineer to see how well they can quickly identify problems, properly respond to shut the well and ensure the incident does not elevate to a total loss of well control and a blow-out.”

Controlling a well and drilling properly are key, as well costs range from $10 million to $30 million onshore and up to $150 million to $200 million for an offshore deep-water well, according to Leimkuhler. A well can be unsuccessful if the well is drilled into a “dry hole,” meaning an area where there is no oil or gas, he says. A well also can be unsuccessful if a well control event leads to a loss of stability and the well collapses. This results in “trouble cost”  to re-drill, which can range from a few million dollars to the total well cost, depending on at which point in the drilling process the incident occurred, Leimkuhler says.

Leimkuhler pointed to the failure of BP’s Macondo Well in the Gulf that led to the Transocean oil rig explosion in April 2010 as possibly the worst-case scenario.

“The big issue is not money, but safety. At Macondo, 11 lives were lost and there is no cost that can replace those lives,” Leimkuhler says. “One of the mitigating factors in the Macondo event has been identified, in the subsequent investigations, as insufficient well control practices -- an area where improved simulator training may have helped.”

He says the total cost of that oil spill has not been tallied, but expects it to exceed $20 billion, plus the fines and penalties.

“A simulator is an excellent tool to develop the skills to ‘expect the unexpected’, and help ensure blowouts remain a well-managed risk and not a reality,” Leimkuhler says.

A DrillSIM5000 drilling and well control simulator will be installed in the Drilling Simulator Teaching Lab in UW’s new Energy Innovation Center and be ready for use this fall. (Drilling Systems (UK) Limited Photo)

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