Interview with Dr. Marcel Grubert
Interviewed By: Sriniketh Sukumar and Oscar Villa
“Professional Development is an iterative process where gaining valuable information about the industry is the key to success”
Dr. Marcel Grubert is an Unconventional Resources Advisor at OptaSense – Oil Field Services. He supports DAS/DTS flow profiling and hydraulic fracture applications on- and offshore. He was previously a Well Performance expert and Matrix Stimulation Technology team-lead at the ExxonMobil Upstream Research Company.
Dr. Grubert has over 12 years of expertise in well production optimization and surveillance, DTS/DAS, multiphase flow & metering, stimulation, reservoir/well coupling, complex completion designs and field development, and development and commercialization of flow related technology. He received his Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Tennessee and M.S. in Aerospace Engineering from Aachen University.
My background is in Aerospace engineering, which I developed back in Germany, after which I got my PHD in mechanical engineering at the university of Tennessee, where my research was focused on computational fluid dynamics. So, I was originally not even looking into the oil and gas industry. Actually, I had very little background or idea of what it the oil and gas industry was about. I probably knew just about as much as anybody else that wasn’t in the industry. With regards to production, I knew you “you put it in your tank you get chemicals out of it and send it to refineries” but that’s all I knew.
When finishing up my PhD, I started looking for jobs at my university’s career fair, an event with several recruiters from large companies like Boeing and National research labs among others. While looking at different companies, an Exxon Mobil recruiter saw and recognized me, since it probably was my 4th or 5th time attending. He saw my mechanical engineering PhD tag so he “jumped me” to ask me if I was interested if to be part of Exxon Mobil, and I told him I didn’t know anything about chemical engineering or the oil and gas industry, but he insisted by telling me they needed mechanical engineering, PhD’s as well as several other disciplines and they took a great interest on the research I was working on at the time. He said they could use me in the upstream research department, after they trained me in oil and gas concepts of course. There is a large overlap between the aerospace industry and petroleum engineering, which are joined by similar underlying theories in computational fluid dynamics. Granted, of course that we are dealing with different fluids, and different conditions (since aerospace deals with low pressures and low temperatures and high speeds as opposed to the subsurface, where fluids experience high pressures and temperature profiles). I liked the challenges, so I tried to find out more about it, they invited me to Houston and liked what I had to tell them and it all worked out nicely.
My original research at university was on the study of turbulent flow, which is also the main reason I got hired for. At Exxon Mobil, I started to apply my knowledge to well production, multiphase flow, among other applications. We strongly considered how wells performance would be optimized, which expanded into flow models and completions designs. From there I moved into matrix acid stimulation, where we researched ways for our company to be better connected to the reservoir.
As I started to work with all these new concepts, I began to wonder more on how can we connect the well with the reservoir itself, since I noticed that reservoir engineers often treat the well as a point source and some other subsurface engineers typically treat the reservoir as a simple layer. I thought that we needed somehow merge and couple these two concepts. So I started to get more involved with the reservoir coupling to see if we could upgrade our reservoir, completions and well performance simulators into surveillance and data multiphase flow measurements. I started to see more potential for fiber optics application, such as incorporating distributed temperature sensing (DTS) and acoustic sensing (DAS). The company was also moving developing these applications and especially when I moved to Optasense, fibre optics really became a leader in this field. The principle was simple: I wanted to use data better to make better decisions.
Well it was very very rewarding working for ExxonMobil, who had this great education program where they train you in both the theory, but more importantly the application on the job. I have taught some of those classes myself, so I was not only applying my knowledge through solving problems for the operation part of the company but I also was teaching and creating new technology as a researcher. There was a great emphasis on how we can actually use a particular technology to make money out of the well. I actually started teaching some of those courses myself somewhere along the road. Not just applying to solving problems, but also teaching and creating new knowledge. When I moved to the reservoir side to try different things, that’s when I started to seek more challenges and see more of the operations side of the industry. That’s about when the oil industry was slowing down, nobody wanted to move anywhere or lose people in operations. People were coming back due to low oil prices. That’s when I decided to look for more opportunities with fiber optics technology and Optasense was looking for people with a lot of flow experience.
Now how does this relate to transitioning from a big company to a small company? It is different, in the big company you are a small wheel in a big machinery It is a safe environment, a lot of people, with paths predesigned, and a lot of opportunity. You can switch into a different application, move offshore or even go to different countries. There are different applications that you can aspire towards, but I wanted to have more influence on how the company moves, which is limited in a big company because most of decisions are made by higher ups. So, I started in a small company where I have a greater influence over moving in the company. It’s a great team with lots of new and interesting applications. I get to see wells of many different operators, which comes with a lot of data. I gain a lot of new learnings and overall, I like the opportunities.
Well the first thing that I can advise is internships. Unfortunately, at my university internships weren’t really promoted, since assistantships for graduate students were paid throughout the year, and the summers were usually spent working on research. You need to see the applications, you want to see how the knowledge is applied to create business and make money and not just theory; you need to see how it actually works. Every time you go out to seek internships with companies like ExxonMobil, etc. they get to know you. When you come back years later with your degree completed and ask them for a job you are going to be on top of the line because if they know you from more than just with your resume, i.e. this is what you did in the past vs another guy who is his first time dropping his resume. That’s a hands down win for you. So that’s what I can recommend, go out there, spend the time to get an internship, get to know the companies so that you know that’s the environment you like, make sure that they know you.
The other part is when you get out of college with your degree, you have a paper that says I am a petroleum engineer, mechanical engineer, etc. but sometimes you feel lost, since you gained a lot of knowledge, but there is no clue how to perform an engineer’s job. You may well find yourself asking “how do I complete a well?”. Look for companies that continue with education through programs that are going to continue and teach you how to do your job. For me, Exxon Mobil was an excellent example of this with milestones and classes that actually taught me how to apply my knowledge. Other possibility is working for a smaller company where you gain hands on experience directly. They might say, go out to the field and frack a well. Let’s do this. You then get the other part of the knowledge. The idea is to pick a company that teaches you how to do your job quickly because at the end if you decided you don’t like the company you can walk away with some knowledge.
When I was first involved in research, we were always trying to figure things out to the fifth decimal point. Then when I learnt about operators, they were always on ±20% to just reach a decision. They needed just enough information to make a decision, and of course, to make money. There is a bit of a disconnect between the academic and the corporate world. In research, we often try to make our process perfect, but in the corporate world, we are working with time, money and resource constraints, so we need to make decisions. Executives need to make decisions in a timely manner. If we wait because we still don’t have the last 1% of data, then our operation is in trouble. It took me a while to realize this, and it was difficult having come from an academic background. However, there is a lot we can bring to the table as academics, since we bring lots of new ideas to the table. An engineer who works at the same company for more than ten years becomes limited in his thinking, whereas an academic can bring new ideas to the table since they bring fresh perspectives and a good mindset.
Internships! You can know what the company is doing, what they need. Take more interesting classes. If you don’t do internships, then go to conferences, read and learn about what the industry is prioritizing, read published papers, don’t be afraid to approach people and ask for their knowledge/ advice. Talk to people! Remember, they were also in your position at one point in time. 99.9% of people are always willing to share their knowledge. Engineers are like that, we like sharing our knowledge. Especially in answering questions like “how can I change my course?” or “What are the things that your company values?” Information is key, and professional development is an iterative process.
You can align yourself in a newly emerging field, but there is some risk involved, major operators are not very quick to change direction. Cutting edge stuff may not be available. Another approach is to think about what knowledge can I gain to improve on the bottom line. That’s very difficult for a university student point of view, since they only think from a research point of view. Students find a new cutting-edge technology and say “that’s cool and shiny, and I’m the first one to think of it”. Then the operator says “What money does it make me?” and students say “Umm…It’s shiny?” They don’t have an answer! You need to figure out how your research can apply to their bottom line of making money and adding value. As students, you certainly have problem solving skills, whether or not you have knowledge of the oil and gas industry, but you certainly have problem solving skills, that you can apply to any industry, which can make you very valuable to a company. Companies can see your potential and want to hire you to solve the problems that they have yet to resolve.
One of my favorites places was the middle east, it was a great experience, seen the culture, another country, how they interact, how different it is from our own, it’s just great. I would recommend to anybody to travel, I am from Germany so we travel a lot when we have the opportunity, now that I am here in the U.S. I don’t see that many Americans travel. Maybe it’s because the US is such a huge country, we can drive in any directions for days and still not reach the end! Traveling is one of the big advantages of the oil industry, because there is onshore outshore developments, south America middle east, Asia pacific etc. I had the opportunity to visit this and many other places, for which I considered myself blessed.
The culture was amazing in the Middle East, and I really liked it there. I have also been to Algeria, where I was picked in convoys, just to get to the office. In the case of major operators around the world, we actually get the opportunity to work in these places for extended periods of time and not just visit for 2 weeks, but a 3-year stint where we could really learn the culture. A lot of people actually love the culture and end up extending their stay! You need to be adventurous to stay in places like that. [Laughter] Good thing is I was not a driller, who have 60 days in 60 days off, offshore, in the middle of nowhere, where as you might imagine, it gets tough.
Fiber optics is going to take off, and automation is another. I have seen lots of developments in big companies towards automatic processes. You see in the past we didn’t have much data, production engineers made intelligent wells readings from pressure gauges for operations like well tests, but it was overall manageable. But now suddenly we are getting lots of data, pressure readings every second at giga or even tera bites per day, from dozens or hundreds of wells! Lots of companies are trying to figure out how to manage the all the new data flood that is overwhelming them. The answer is not obvious. We ask ourselves, is it possible to develop algorithms that can identify and predict flow futures and pressure around the wellbore and sense what is happening in the well? Can we alert the production engineer and give recommendations on what actions to take? And thirdly see if we can automate this response. For example, can we distribute gas lift somewhere else and redistribute it to a well that might need it more? More automated conditions. Artificial intelligence is huge along with self-learning algorithms. That can help engineers optimize. Even if we see something this long, we cannot do it so quickly.
Well it depends on the prices, how we can justify it, what benefits does it offer our company, and what could be the savings and the production improvement. You need to have money to put from the completed wells. You need to run the numbers. However, there are definitely some lower hanging fruits. Plus, it’s not just the smaller companies, even larger companies are slow to change due to practices and tradition. At the end of the day, you need to put the money into drilling the wells and completing the wells. In addition, thanks to their new thinking and ideology, new talent and people who are willing to take risks are essential to the oil and gas industry.