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Subsea Engineering Program Major Player in 2014 Offshore Technology Conference

By: 

Audrey Grayson

Although still a relatively new program to the UH Cullen College of Engineering, the subsea engineering program is already a major player in worldwide subsea engineering education, technological development and policymaking. The latest evidence of the program’s growing importance can be seen in its presence at the upcoming 2014 Offshore Technology Conference (OTC), where the leaders of the Cullen College’s subsea engineering program will be presenting papers and chairing panel sessions with the world’s leading subsea engineering universities to find solutions to the most pressing challenges facing the subsea profession.

The UH Cullen College of Engineering is the United States’ clear leader in subsea engineering education. It started the country’s first academic program the discipline in 2011 and in 2012 began offering the nation’s first master’s degree in subsea engineering, which focuses on the equipment and infrastructure used in the underwater portion of offshore petroleum exploration and retrieval.

In May 2013, the Cullen College took the lead in establishing the first Global Subsea University Alliance, a group consisting of the leaders of the world’s top subsea engineering programs which is dedicated to establishing worldwide standards for subsea engineering education.

The current problem being faced by many companies operating in the subsea sector is that the newness of the field means there are still many lingering questions surrounding how best to safely and efficiently extract offshore resources. The Global Subsea University Alliance seeks to answer these questions, while at the same time setting universal, worldwide standards for subsea engineering education.

Currently, there are very few universities in the world offering subsea engineering degrees – and according to Matt Franchek, founding director of the subsea engineering program and a professor of mechanical engineering at the Cullen College, each of these universities has their own version of a subsea engineering education and curriculum.

This lack of uniform standards surrounding subsea engineering education can throw a wrench in energy companies’ recruiting and hiring process, said Franchek. “When you’re hiring a mechanical engineer, you know what you’re hiring. When you hire an electrical engineer, you know what you’re hiring. But when you hire a subsea engineer, you don’t know what you’re hiring. Everybody has their own version or variation,” he said.

The first step to remedying this problem, Franchek said, is a course-by-course, lecture-by-lecture evaluation of the world’s top subsea engineering programs, all of which belong to the alliance. In addition to the University of Houston, these include programs at Curtin University in Australia, Federal University of Rio de Janero (Brazil), the National University of Singapore, the University of Aberdeen (Scotland) and the University of Bergen (Norway).

Each of these universities, along with industry representatives from companies operating in the subsea sector, will be present at the upcoming Global Subsea University Alliance meeting being held at the OTC Conference in Houston, Texas from May 5-8. This meeting, titled “Global Subsea University Alliance – Providing Talent for Industrial Future,” will take place on Wednesday, May 7 at 7:30 a.m. Franchek will serve as the key speaker for this session, with Phaneendra Kondapi, KBR adjunct professor of subsea engineering , serving as a panelist.

In addition to this panel session, Kondapi will be presenting a paper on subsea engineering education titled “Need for Industry Ready Education” on Tuesday, May 6 at 9:30 a.m. In his presentation, Kondapi will discuss the growing need to update engineering curriculums worldwide in order to better prepare students for careers in industry. And with the “Great Crew Change” looming in the near future – that is, the impending retirements of many baby-boomer-aged industry leaders – the need to prepare industry-ready engineering students is more pressing than ever.

Kondapi, who has the unique experience of having served as both a full-time industry professional as well as an adjunct professor within the Cullen College’s subsea engineering program, is especially well-positioned to provide some insight into the problems being faced by the energy industry as well as their possible solutions.  “A lot of professors don’t know or have experience with what is needed in industry, and many engineering students don’t have any industry-ready skills by the time they graduate – they just come out of school with textbook knowledge that they cannot readily apply to industry,” Kondapi explained. “In a rapidly changing and transforming industry such as this one, that is simply not acceptable.”

The key to filling this growing knowledge gap in industry, Kondapi said, is more collaboration between academia and industry. “Once the current leaders in at many energy companies begin retiring, how will we keep up with the challenges we’re facing in industry whilst continuing to prepare the next generation of subsea engineers? The key thing, I believe, is for industry and academia to work together to make a robust and better subsea engineering curriculum which addresses these knowledge gaps and challenges. It’s the responsibility of both parties to address this; it’s a two-way street.”

One way to achieve this, Kondapi said, is for more industry professionals to offer their services as instructors or student mentors at their local engineering colleges. Another way industry could be more involved in engineering education is to give more seminars, talks or presentations on college campuses in order to share the industry-perspective with current engineering students.

“Industry can help by actively working with universities to make sure they understand what knowledge gaps they’re facing and what skillsets they are lacking, so universities can tailor their curriculums accordingly and better prepare students to fill those gaps in industry,” Kondapi said.

Additionally, universities can help to bridge this gap by offering more courses online – including courses taught by industry professionals – to help more engineering students across the world gain greater perspective on the needs and challenges within the energy industry.

Finally, the development of soft skills such as public speaking, preparing industry-standard reports, and team and project management are vital for engineers looking for careers in industry, but Kondapi said many engineering colleges neglect to offer training for such skills.  One way for engineering colleges to teach these skills to students, Kondapi explained, is to arrange field trips to local companies or invite speakers from industry into the classroom to explain to engineering students what life will be like once they land their first industry position. “I want my students to really know what industry will be like before they get there,” Kondapi said. “I want them to work on the same problems, prepare the same reports, give the same presentations and work on the same computer software as they will when they get to industry. When a student graduates from the University of Houston with an engineering degree, they are ready to start work in industry – they don’t require any additional training.”

Kondapi will also be chairing two additional panel sessions at the upcoming OTC: “Flow Assurance Technologies – Advances and Applications,” which will take place on Tuesday, May 6 at 9:30 a.m., and “Subsea Processing,” which will be held Wednesday, May 7 at 9:30 a.m.

The first session focuses on the latest advances in flow assurance technologies – or, as Kondapi refers to it, “the effective management of hydrocarbons.” As a Senior Technical Advisor of flow assurance with KBR and with many years of prior experience in flow assurance with other companies, Kondapi quite literally lives and breathes flow assurance, which enables the flow of petroleum in an underwater environment. The course Kondapi teaches at the UH Cullen College of Engineering on flow assurance is the most popular graduate-level course at the University of Houston, boasting 120 students.

The second session focuses on subsea processing and will cover everything from subsea water removal and re-injection, boosting of well fluids, sand/solid and gas/liquid separation, and gas treatment and compression. Many of the processes and technologies coming out of this emerging field can help save time and money in offshore oil extraction while increasing safety and production. However, there is still much to be researched when it comes to these technologies.

“Onshore processing and separation has been in existence for many years, and we haven’t been using it in the subsea for a long time. But when we do this 9,000 or 10,000 feet below the surface of the water, what are the changes that are required for these technologies to be as safe and effective as possible? How do we use these technologies there? How do we verify these technologies? What kind of testing do we do? These are the questions will be addressed in this session,” Kondapi explained.

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