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Building a Legacy

September 5, 2017
head portrait of man
Mohammad Piri

The first faculty member hired to restart the petroleum engineering program, Mohammad Piri went on to spearhead the new High Bay Research Facility.

By Andy Chapman

As Mohammad Piri walked along the corridor of the fourth floor of the Engineering Building, his footfalls echoed through the empty, cavernous hallway of what used to be the Department of Petroleum Engineering at the University of Wyoming.

Pick any lab space, he was told. After all, they were mostly inactive or storing furniture. It was essentially a ghost town after once hosting a thriving program, shuttered in 1996 when just 26 students were enrolled.

The goal to become a prominent program once again has more clarity now. Piri’s vision for a groundbreaking oil and gas research facility has come to fruition in the form of the Center of Innovation for Flow Through Porous Media at the High Bay Research Facility.

Piri serves as the director of the center, an especially meaningful position for him. He was the first petroleum engineering faculty hired in 2005 when the university reinstated the program.

“When I arrived, we had next to nothing,” Piri says. “I said to (Wyoming Governor’s Energy, Engineering, and STEM Integration Task Force co-chair) Tom Botts that I had to start from the ground up.”

Botts quickly interjected: “No, you started from the bottom of a ditch.”

A Lofty Idea

Originally from Tehran, Iran, Piri earned his undergraduate degree and first master’s degree in chemical engineering in his home country. He then took an opportunity to study abroad and earned a second master’s and Ph.D. degrees from Imperial College in London and began postdoctoral research. He took a position at Princeton University in the civil and environmental engineering department shortly after to work on carbon mitigation projects as a postdoctoral researcher.

The idea of establishing cutting-edge experimental research facilities originated from his studies at Imperial College and Princeton. He realized that his work was too theoretical to make a difference in a practical sense. Few experimental platforms existed that could generate the data necessary to validate his models.

Currently oil and gas production leaves vast quantities of hydrocarbons behind in unconventional and conventional reservoirs—sometimes up to 90 percent. And so, one of the tangible outcomes of research in the High Bay is to develop safe and effective recovery techniques that can be used to produce higher percentages of oil and gas reserves. If researchers can gain better insight into how hydrocarbons are stored in and transported through ultra-tight formations, more energy can be produced to meet the demands of world’s growing population.

“I did modeling and theoretical work before coming to UW, and I continue to do it today, but I started experimental work at UW,” Piri says. “If I wanted to make a meaningful difference in this area, I needed to help remove the bottleneck in conducting experiments in parallel, not just develop the next theory or model or idea that nobody is able to test. I’m very proud. I think we have established the first one of those experimental facilities.”

From Humble Beginnings

“I was the first faculty the University of Wyoming hired to restart the program after shutting it down in 1996,” Piri says. “Of course, I was very excited about it. It was at that time that I started thinking about developing a major research facility that would generate high-quality experimental data against which we could validate our models.”

Piri began by opening the College of Engineering and Applied Science Encana Research Laboratory. Opened in 2008, that lab was the only one of its kind in the world. Then came the Hess Digital Rock Physics Laboratory in 2013.

“That became the platform upon which we started building a lot of other components that today you see being integrated with the High Bay research facility,” he says. “We saw the success we had with those initiatives.”

But those initiatives all had one drawback for the research: limited experimental capacity.

“Just before we built the Hess Digital Rock Physics Laboratory, (SER Director) Mark Northam and I started thinking about establishing a facility that would provide not just the capabilities we had established but also create massive capacity,” Piri says. “A lot of these facilities can handle only a limited number of experiments, thereby creating a bottleneck that hampers our ability to solve the technological challenges we face today in the reservoirs in a timely manner. We were discussing this on a whiteboard, and we wrote a proposal together and shared it with the governor’s task force as a way to elevate the College of Engineering to Tier-1 status. That’s when the whole thing started.”

Piri and Northam began raising funding from private and state sources. “We started planning for a way to have the research capacity that they needed to solve some really important problems,” Northam says.

What It Means

A clear vision enabled a facility that not only enables multi-scale research on flow and transport in porous media, but also provides massive capacity to conduct multiple studies in parallel. At its essence, that’s what makes the facility so transformational.

“This facility, no doubt, will play a major role in helping us attract talent at the university,” Piri says. “That’s what we want to see: talent at multiple levels—at the faculty level, at the postdoctoral research associate level and at the graduate student level. The research in this facility will also enrich the education of our undergraduate students. We are very keen to make sure that happens. High-caliber scientists at an institution can take the research to a new level. It is all about having the right people. If we are able to attract much higher-quality talent here, we have a much better shot at taking this to a new level, and then we can be confident in developing solutions to the challenges.”

Piri is quick to point out that his facility will be useful in many areas, not just oil and gas. It has direct relevance to other flow through porous media problems in different areas of science and engineering—for instance, sequestration of large quantities of carbon dioxide (CO2) in deep saline aquifers, which can mitigate the impact of CO2 emissions on climate.

“The capabilities and the manner in which they have been integrated will enable multi-scale studies of flow and transport through porous media in one location,” Piri says. “The capacity and the ability to conduct numerous experiments under application-relevant conditions are among the factors that make this a unique facility.”

Nothing Came Easy

The challenges have been numerous. Piri was, like any other tenure-track faculty member, on a tenure clock. He had to show real progress in five to six years in order to be tenured, which made his situation a daunting task as a young scientist.

“When I arrived here, I’ll be honest—it was scary for a number of reasons,” he says. “We didn’t have much, and the program didn’t have any students. I didn’t have very many petroleum engineering colleagues to collaborate with. We didn’t have facilities. A lot of the labs on my floor were either inactive, or they were used as storage.

“I was very lucky that I had access to absolutely excellent leaders in the state and this coupled with some of the visionary leaders in the university helped me to start developing initiatives that would allow me to create some momentum.”

The department then started to hire faculty and increase enrollment. Piri’s optimism grew, and he believes UW is on track to become a premier destination for research and education. As of spring 2017, the department has 301 undergraduate students, 54 graduate students and 13 faculty.

“Are we done growing? Absolutely not. In fact, we have a solid vision for where we want to go from here,” Piri adds. “But we are also taking time to look back and see where we started from and where we are now. How did we achieve this? What were the lessons we learned? How can we deploy the lessons moving forward?”

Leaders Step Up

While Piri spearheaded the efforts, he knows it wouldn’t have gotten off the ground if not for the contributions of several prominent individuals. It’s a long list, which includes Mark Northam, former Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal, current Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead, Greg Hill (president and chief operating officer of Hess Corp.), Thomas Botts (former executive vice president of global manufacturing at Shell Downstream Inc.), Chad Deaton (former chief executive officer of Baker Hughes), the governor’s task force, the UW Board of Trustees, members of university leadership and UW Foundation President Ben Blalock.

Hill was on a visit to UW, his alma mater, when he first learned of Piri’s new work in imaging flow through porous media. Hill was struck by the potential impact the research could have on recovery in fields like the Permian, Bakken and Eagle Ford. Hill leaned on his experience developing a large field like the Bakken, where the recovery rate is in the high teens, leaving about 80 percent of oil in the ground using current techniques. That’s when he proposed partnering with Piri on this research, which led him to persuade Hess to give $25 million to UW to amplify Piri’s research and provide the base funding for High Bay.

“The implications are much broader than Wyoming because it can apply to all unconventional reservoirs around the world,” Hill says. “The kinds of things he’s doing no one else is, nor can they. If the breakthroughs happen that are possible, Wyoming has a lot of unconventional reserves. If companies can double recovery, that has huge economic implications.

“His work is becoming a magnet for other companies to invest. One of my hopes is to make Laramie and UW the formative vessel for flow through porous media. He has already gotten us on the world stage, and I’d like to see that grow even further. When you’re No. 1, you’re a magnet. You can get the best people. We have the opportunity for that.”

It’s Only the Beginning

Between his hectic travel schedule and research and teaching duties, Piri rarely has time to sit around. But he admits the progress of the facility has allowed him to reflect. “I’m extremely proud. I know where we started from and where we are today,” he says. “I’m also grateful to the leaders in the state and university and around the world. I did not reach this point on my own.

“I’m grateful to those who have helped me reach this point. I’m mindful that I don’t want us to stop at this point. We want to keep going forward and upward. Looking back, it provides a sense of satisfaction that is hard to describe. Seeing the University of Wyoming being considered as a key institution in this area of research gives me a sense of gratification that is very hard to explain.”

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