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UW Cuts Ribbon on One-of-a-Kind High Bay Research Facility

August 17, 2017
person using a CT scanner
Researcher Morteza Akbarabadi works in UW’s new High Bay Research Facility with a medical CT scanner tuned for petrophysical applications. The scanner is rotated to a horizontal orientation to allow for experiments through vertically placed rock samples. (UW Photo)

The University of Wyoming cut the ribbon today (Thursday) on the High Bay Research Facility -- a large, flexible, state-of-the-art laboratory facility for cutting-edge oil and gas research.

“The grand opening of the High Bay Research Facility is a great day for UW and Wyoming,” Gov. Matt Mead says. “This state-of-the-art facility is a commitment to maintaining Wyoming’s leadership role in energy research. I thank the Legislature for its support and the companies that contributed generously to this important project. Congratulations to UW and all involved for a job well done.”

Because Wyoming’s economy is based significantly on natural resource extraction, energy research conducted in the High Bay will directly impact the future of the state and its citizens.

Located on North 19th Street near the UW Centennial Complex, the $68 million, 90,000-square-foot High Bay Research Facility is a partnership between the School of Energy Resources and the College of Engineering and Applied Science. It houses the Center of Innovation for Flow Through Porous Media, the Improved Oil Recovery Laboratory, the Geomechanical/Petrology Laboratory and a Structures Research Laboratory.

“The High Bay Research Facility is a true asset for the future of UW’s energy programs,” UW President Laurie Nichols says. “Already a leader, UW researchers and students will be able to expand cutting-edge oil and gas research that benefits the state, as well as other engineering research important to industries in the state and region. The governor, the state Legislature and donors who invest in the university deserve our appreciation.”

The facility is designed for large-scale experiments that go beyond the size of a traditional engineering laboratory. However, the high-bay configuration not only allows for large experiments. It also quickly adapts to changing research needs and can be reconfigured rapidly and economically.

For example, when the university expands its research into a new area, a new laboratory can be constructed in a portable building or a shipping container and then quickly moved into the High Bay and hooked up to utilities -- instead of the university having to construct a whole new building.

woman using high tech equipment
Researcher Gina Javanbakht works in UW’s new High Bay Research Facility with a microscope that is used to examine fluid flow through ultra-deep subsea oil and gas wells. (UW Photo)

“This new research facility is a game changer for UW oil and gas research,” says Mark Northam, executive director of the School of Energy Resources. “Our work on flow through porous media and improved recovery is world class. Now we have the capacity to challenge new frontiers and to continue to push the envelope of fundamental knowledge of how subsurface reservoirs work.”

The High Bay represents a huge leap forward in advancing research into unconventional reservoirs, part of UW’s Tier-1 Engineering Initiative and the School of Energy Resources’ strategic areas of concentration. New technology from this research has the potential to tap significant new oil and gas reserves from unconventional reservoirs within Wyoming, and incremental improvements to production represent major new revenue streams to the state.

“This facility will allow us to advance our understanding of research topics that are critical to our mission in the College of Engineering,” Dean Michael Pishko says. “UW now will be the pre-eminent destination in the world for scientists to develop knowledge in areas like chemical, petroleum, and civil and structural engineering, which will help the university better serve the residents of Wyoming.”

In the Center of Innovation for Flow Through Porous Media, world-leading research by Professor Mohammad Piri and his team characterizes the interactions of fluids and rocks in fine-grained pore space in unconventional reservoirs. 

“This initiative establishes one of the world’s most advanced institutions for experimental and computational research on flow through porous media,” says Piri, the Wyoming Excellence Chair in Petroleum Engineering. “The collaborative research to be conducted in the Center of Innovation for Flow Through Porous Media will significantly advance state-of-the-art knowledge of multiphase flow and transport in porous media. The advances will be pivotal to extracting maximum value from both conventional and unconventional reservoirs.”

This center uses advanced instrumentation to visualize the three phases of fluids and their interactions under reservoir conditions. This instrument-intensive work has the possibility of increasing oil and gas production capacity tenfold, all while using existing facilities that tap into known reserves.

The additional space within the High Bay will expand experimental capacity for the center. It will allow Piri’s group to conduct multiple areas of investigation simultaneously, thereby satisfying the demands of both academic research and private-sector partnerships -- known as sponsored research.

“Our investment with the University of Wyoming is enabling Hess to access cutting-edge technology and insights that will drive enhanced resource recovery and operational efficiency across our company,” says Greg Hill, COO and president of Hess Corp., and co-chair of the Wyoming Governor’s Energy, Engineering, STEM Integration Task Force.

man adjusting high tech equipment
Researcher Uche Igwe works in UW’s new High Bay Research Facility with a microcomputed tomography device that uses X-rays to construct 3-D images of the internal structure of physical objects, achieving resolutions in the sub-micrometer range. (UW Photo)

Sponsored research works in the same way as federal grants. The donor or sponsor sits down with the principal investigator, and they design a program of work that both answers a specific problem for the sponsor but also has scholarly benefit.

Once an agreement is reached, a research contract is signed, which is equivalent to a Department of Energy or National Science Foundation contract. Requirements of the contract may include the principal investigator sharing the results in a timely manner and possibly teaching the sponsor’s workforce how to use the results. These vary from contract to contract.

Piri currently conducts sponsored research for three to five clients but will expand to bring the lab up to full capacity in the new facility. The extra space eliminates the need for compromise that might jeopardize Wyoming’s leading position in this research.

“One of the criticisms of sponsored research is that it is not as pure and fundamental as researchers might perform under a federal grant,” Northam says. “The truth is that it is equally rigorous research that is adding critical knowledge. I assure you that the problems that are being investigated are adding to the fundamental knowledge base as much as anything -- in fact, probably more because the information is relevant to the real world today.”

The center’s research into flow through porous media has many more applications than just oil and gas -- such as groundwater, wastewater treatment, medicine delivery, carbon engineering and CO2 sequestration, among others.

Professor Vladimir Alvarado’s Improved Oil Recovery Laboratory in the High Bay researches the more traditional methods of improved recovery and also uses advanced instrumentation to investigate core flooding and improved oil-recovery pathways.

The Geomechanical/Petrology Laboratory performs advanced experimental work on geomechanics, which investigates the properties of the reservoir rocks themselves. Piri’s program is currently taking on this research although, in the future, this may fall to another faculty position.

man standing in a lab
Mohammad Piri, the Wyoming Excellence Chair in Petroleum Engineering, directs the Center of Innovation for Flow Through Porous Media in UW’s new High Bay Research Facility. (UW Photo)

The UW structural engineering program’s current space could not accommodate the size of structures that it needs to test -- not to mention that these very large structures could not be delivered to the current lab -- and, so, the High Bay location was a perfect fit.

Public-private partnerships supported construction of the facility, the technology within it, and programs and professorships, while state matching funds provide strong incentive for industry leaders to partner with UW. These partnerships have played a strategic role in funding the High Bay and in delivering successful solutions to today’s challenges.

Companies that have partnered with UW on the High Bay Research Facility include Hess Corp., Thermo Fisher Scientific (formerly FEI), Halliburton, Baker Hughes Inc., ExxonMobil, Alchemy Sciences Inc., Marathon Oil Corp., Shell Oil Co., Arch Coal and Saudi Aramco. Philanthropists Marian H. Rochelle and Tom and Shelley Botts also supported the facility and its programs.

Much credit for the creation of the High Bay Research Facility goes to current and past governors and the state Legislature, UW officials say. Those elected officials’ forward-thinking created the environment that made this possible -- the planning, the partnerships, the facilities, the research.

“Dr. Piri’s work through the School of Energy Resources, led by Executive Director Mark Northam, is a defining model for all UW can achieve when state matching funds allow the university to elevate corporate partners’ support,” says Ben Blalock, president of the UW Foundation. “The Wyoming model is the envy of the nation.”

The ribbon cutting was one in a series of events celebrating the opening of the High Bay. On Wednesday, a barbecue at the Marian H. Rochelle Gateway Center welcomed attendees. Also today, there is a technical symposium -- titled “A New Era in Reservoir Characterization” -- and a luncheon, in addition to the opening ceremony.

Speaking at the ceremony were the governor, Wyoming Senate President Eli Bebout, UW Board of Trustees President John McPherson, Nichols, Hill, Northam and Blalock.

Pishko, Piri and UW Vice President for Research and Economic Development Ed Synakowski, among others, spoke at the technical symposium.


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