Logo: University of Southern California

Viterbi Engineers Present Energy Ideas to $500 Million Research Consortium

RPSEA will begin funding next year; USC shows off technical muscle
Eric Mankin
November 29, 2006 — The Research Partnership to Secure Energy for America (RPSEA), a non-profit consortium that includes USC, will be issuing requests for
RPSEA participants (left to right) included Randolph Hall, Michael Ming and Iraj Ershaghi.
proposals on the first of what will be more than $50 million per year worth of federal- and corporate-funded research beginning early next year.  And the Viterbi School, which hosted a RPSEA forum Nov. 29, has good prospects of securing its share.

“We think the Viterbi School is a good fit for RPSEA's needs,” said USC Vice Provost for Research Advancement Randolph Hall, who gave a welcome address to more than 60 corporate representatives and academics attending the campus forum, which was the fifth of a series of six forums being held across the country.
RPSEA has a mission: “We're running out of the hydrocarbon resources that are cheap to produce,” said RPSEA president Mike Ming, noting that over the next several decades, the nation would have to find economical ways to tap sources like oil shales, coalbed methane, subsea oil and gas deposits under ultra deep water and partially depleted existing fields.

Ming and energy executives from firms like Schlumberger, Halliburton, Chevron,  DeepStar, BP America,  OXY and Shell, as well as research institutions like USC,  UC Berkeley, Los Alamos National Laboratory, Cal Tech, the University of Alaska, the University of Alberta  and Stanford University listened to presentations, including many from Viterbi faculty, about possible directions for the consortium's research budget.

RPSEA has a specific charter to investigate three main areas of energy research --Ultradeep Resources, Unconventional Resources, and Mature Fields-- using funding of $50 million per year for 10 years, coming from royalty trust the federal government earns from oil and gas operations offshore and on government land.



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Its fourth mission, which will largely be funded by corporate contributions, will be to provide fellowships to fill a growing need for young blood in an industry where engineers are on average more than 50 years old.

Ming said that the oil and gas industry does not currently have enough R&D muscle in house to meet the challenges, and was hoping for help from schools like USC.

Viterbi School Senior Associate Dean for Research Maja Mataric joined Hall to give the visitors the message that RPSEA was coming to the right place. Mataric offered a detailed overview of the Viterbi School's history on resources, emphasizing such institutions as the Information Sciences Institute.

Hall in turn detailed Provost C.L. Max Nikias' energy and fuels initiative, and the pending cluster hiring of a group of exceptional faculty in the area.

Iraj Ershaghi, who holds the Omar B. Milligan Chair in Petroleum Engineering in the Mork Department and worked with Dean Yannis Yortsos in securing USC participation in the consortium, said that the initiative began in 2002 but only became a reality with the passage of the Energy Policy Act of 2005, based on growing awareness of the need for R&D in the area of energy.

Ershaghi served as moderator and program chair for the event.

Viterbi School presenters included Peter Will (the Mork Family Department of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science and ISI), who discussed using computing organization techniques for operation; Florian Mansfeld (Mork Department), who discussed corrosion protection technology; Steve Nutt (Mork Department), who discussed the use of next-generation composites in ultra-deep drilling; Guarav Sukhatme (Computer Science Department), who discussed underwater robotics; and Theo Tsostsis,  Muhammad Sahimi and Kristian Jessen (all Mork Department), who discussed new extraction techniques.

New Mork recruit: Kristian Jessen
It was one of the first appearances at a Viterbi function for Jessen, who recently joined the Viterbi faculty. He described the Weyburn project in Canada, which  has been very successful in allowing scientists to monitor large volumes of injected carbon dioxide (CO2) in a partially depleted oil field.

The Weyburn field has produced about 380 million barrels of oil since its discovery in 1954, but EnCana Corp., which operates the field, has been using CO2 injections, referred to as "enhanced oil recovery" (EOR) techniques, to yield more hydrocarbons from the ground.  Now it is considered the world's largest CO2 storage project.  Scientists are fortunate to have 50 years of data to help them carry out an EOR “before” and “after” analyses of the oil fields to determine whether the CO2 injection process is effective.

The results have been promising, Jessen said.  Oil company experts predict they will be able to store more than 21 million tons of CO2 underground over the lifetime of the project in order to cut back on atmospheric greenhouse gases.

“Lots of research still needs to be done, but the technology is there, it's just very expensive," he said.  "But it's time that we in the U.S. change the way we look at energy policy. That means we have to make important political decisions and start giving the oil companies some new incentives, other than making money, to help them transition to new technologies." 

The Research Partnership to Secure Energy for America forum was shown on a live Webcast at chems.usc.edu.