Deep water will be a critical frontier for securing oil and gas resources on a global scale as emerging industrial powerhouses demand more energy. According to a 2010 energy outlook by ExxonMobil, deepwater production accounted for more than 5% of the world’s energy supply the previous year and is expected to more than double to as much as 14 million barrels of oil equivalent per day by 2030.

Given the greater need to explore for and develop more energy reserves in increasingly complex and harsh environments like deep water, tomorrow’s subsea engineering workforce will require a broader set of skills and enhanced training initiatives to keep pace with advancing technologies that address new subsurface E&P challenges.

In May 2011, the University of Houston (UH) unveiled a new subsea certificate program -- the first of its kind in the US -- that will create what UH Subsea Director and Mechanical Engineering Chair Dr. Matthew Franchek calls “a 21st Century energy engineer unlike anybody else.”

Led by industry experts, the pioneering initiative will prepare the next-generation subsea engineer to meet these challenges by developing expertise in the design and maintenance of subsea equipment, tools, and infrastructure used in offshore development.

“We’ve got to realize an education is much broader than just engineering sciences and math,” Franchek told E&P. “It’s actually the translation of those skill sets and knowledge base to best practices -- that’s the UH subsea engineering program.”

Comprising what Franchek calls “rigorous and non-trivial” courses that are a composite of the cross-disciplinary engineering skills needed, UH’s subsea certificate program has grown to 40 students, with 15 to 20 students per class. In one semester, students spend a third of their time on engineering sciences, a third in the translation of that knowledge base to some usable skill set taught by an industry professional, and the final third on a project where they work to solve real engineering problems, he said.

Once the initial courses are completed, the first wave of university-trained subsea engineers in the US will possess a broad spectrum of engineering knowledge, running the gamut from flow assurance and pipeline design to managing and containing materials and corrosion. “Then we have another certificate in advanced subsea engineering that includes: riser design; subsea processing and artificial lift; and subsea control systems and systems integration,” Franchek said.

For now, the program offers six classes. But, Franchek said, work is ongoing with the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board to expand the curriculum. “Our goal is to add four more classes to the six mentioned, and with those 10 classes, a student will come out with a masters of science in subsea engineering,” he said.

With this type of training, Franchek believes UH’s subsea engineers will be able to bridge the gap between engineering disciplines and transcend to other areas of expertise. “It’s not (about) being just a jack of all trades.  It’s (about training) someone who has a greater command of everything that’s going on.”

This level of communication and management, he underscored, is key to increasing operating efficiency and safety offshore.

According to Franchek, the idea to implement the industry-specific program originated from Randy Wester, business manager at FMC Technologies, in October 2009.

In the following months, Franchek said he teamed up with Wester on his subsea initiative by helping to reach out to various companies and then watched as the idea eventually “grew legs of its own and took off.” 

From inception, UH’s subsea engineering program has been a partnership between academia and industry, with many of the enrolled students from Cameron, FMC Technologies, and GE Oil & Gas. As part of the advisory board, these companies are assisting the UH Cullen College of Engineering during the start-up phase of the subsea engineering program.

“This is a program that really belongs to industry -- just as the University of Houston belongs to Houston,” Franchek said. “We are contributing to the industry, and they see it that way as well. But what industry likes about this program in particular is (every class) is taught by someone in the industry who is probably world famous.” The student can then begin to see the class as a semester-long interview.

Meanwhile, the industry has become “very philanthropic” and supportive of initiatives like the UH subsea program because while oil and gas companies are hiring, they are also demanding more highly skilled engineers.

“What they’ve done is turn to the aerospace and automotive communities, which have great skills that are all computational,” Franchek said. “These are people who know how to do computational modeling and use computers in advanced engineering ways and are building things that haven’t been built before.”

According to Franchek, these skills fit subsea perfectly. “Now, industry is trying to leverage that technology and knowledge base and incorporate it into an area that needs this and is crucial to its success,” he said.

Knowledge exchange between academia and industry also put universities like UH at a competitive advantage for training professionals that will lead the oil and gas industry’s future in terms of technology innovation and intelligent systems deployment, such as in the areas of automation and remote capability.

Looking ahead, Franchek sees subsea -- and specifically intelligent subsea -- as “the big enabling technology” of this century, with UH’s subsea program at the forefront of this major R&D effort.

“One of the biggest contributions you can make to society now is helping solve and supply the energy requirements of the 21st Century and then transforming us over to what’s more efficient,” he said.

Contact the author, Nancy Agin, at nagin@hartenergy.com.