By Thomas Guengerich

This is the fourth in a series of articles about the senior design classes in the engineering programs at New Mexico Tech. Previously profiled were the Electrical Engineering, Mechanical Engineering, and Petroleum Engineering.

SOCORRO, N.M., Jan. 5, 2009 – Two teams of seniors in the petroleum engineering department at New Mexico Tech are capping their undergraduate careers with collaborative projects for industry.

Professor Dr. Tom Engler said he designs the class to involve independent oil and gas producers in New Mexico. The teams work closely with representatives from their industrial partners.

Senior design classes have been around for many years, but were only formalized as an integral part of the engineering curriculum about five years ago. ABET, the engineering accreditation organization strongly urges engineering programs at all universities to implement such classes.

“These senior design clinics – or capstone projects – are great programs,” said Dr. Peter Gerity, vice president of academic affairs. “It’s practical experience in a team environment. We train our students in the same mode of industry. They get the awareness they need to enter the workforce.”

The seniors are getting real-life experience solving engineering questions for Yates Petroleum in southeast New Mexico. One team is working with Yates to improve or maximize oil recovery in a mature oil field near Artesia. The other team is examining one of Yates’ natural gas fields in the same region.

“Their task is to optimize development,” Engler said. “Can they drill more wells? The design component is to improve natural gas production.”

For the majority of their undergraduate careers, these seniors have worked with closed data systems on textbook situations.

“Usually we give them all the information,” Engler said. “This is more open-ended. They have to search public domain information to acquire the knowledge base to approach these situations. Then, they’ll have more questions and they’ll have to go to Artesia to get more data.”

Members of both teams said they are struggling with data collection. The team members already have been to Artesia to meet with company engineers and get a look at the production areas. Yates officials have provided some proprietary data and the students have found some public record geologic data. Now, their task is to make educated suggestions for maximizing production and cost efficiency in their projects.

“We’re lacking data,” said Jakub Bednarz of the petroleum team. “We are going to have to make some assumptions, some educated guesses.”

They will consider proposals to drill new wells or they might consider horizontal drilling. His teammates are Chris Charron, Jamal Alboloushi and Matt Higgins.

Both fields are relatively young and are still in primary production.

“We’re looking at how we can improve these wells,” Bednarz said. “We might suggest drilling more wells or we might look at horizontal wells.”

The natural gas team has a similar task: identifying methods of maximizing production. That team of seniors is Spencer Stuart, Loron Ashcroft, Lois Kanga and Bart Hegarty.

“They’ve given us some information that they didn’t have to show us,” Stuart said. “So that has helped us have a little better idea what is going on geologically.”

Petroleum engineers study three main components of industrial design – drilling, production and natural resources – or reservoir analysis. These three areas combine knowledge from math, physics, engineering, economics and geology.

“Senior Design teaches how all these things interact and that’s a valuable lesson,” Engler said. “They will be working with real-world data. Engineers like data, but now they’ll find out there’s a bit of uncertainty. They’ll make engineering judgments and decisions about the quality of the data as well.”

The first semester of the yearlong class is devoted to gathering and interpreting data and devising a set of recommendations or proposals. The semester will close with each team selecting a course of action. During the spring semester, the teams will implement their preferred engineering solution.

Through partnerships with industry, students get a big taste of the expectations they’ll face after graduation.

“If all their learning is theoretical, they will have problems in the workplace,” Gerity said. “The senior design clinics are a tremendous value to our graduates. We emphasize hands-on learning so much through our four-year programs, that our graduates have an advantage that is critical to getting an edge in the job market.

– NMT –