One of the main goals of Abu Dhabi’s development strategy is to increase high-skilled employment among Emiratis, while another is strengthening local research and development (R&D), to boost innovation and value-added. Thus, development of the skills for the hydrocarbons sector is key. Abdul Munim Saif Al Kindy, deputy chairman of the Petroleum Institute (PI), told OBG, “To reach a target of a 70% recovery rate will require significant investment in R&D. However, the important thing to remember is that there is time. It will not happen overnight and we must be vigilant and patient. From a fiscal perspective we also need to be cognizant of just how much there is to gain. A 1% improvement in recovery rates equate to $200bn in additional revenue. It is PI’s goal to continue using R&D to improve recovery rates by at least 5%.”
PI was established by an Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC) in 2000 and was officially open to students in 2001 with the goal of becoming a leading engineering university and centre for energy industry research. PI has become one of the top institutions of its kind in the Middle East. The school concentrates on five main areas pertaining to the energy sector: petroleum engineering, petroleum geosciences, and mechanical, chemical and electrical engineering. There are also “annex” subjects such as health, safety and environment, and applied chemistry, which students can study along with their normal courses. The US News & World Report, a media company that publishes well-known college ratings, ranked PI as the UAE’s second-best university and put it in the top 25 in the Middle East for engineering. Overall, the institution ranked fourth in the UAE and in the top 50 in the MENA region.
With Abu Dhabi aiming to grow its hydrocarbons industry, develop more value-added segments and strengthen its position in advanced technologies, such as enhanced oil recovery (EOR), pad drilling and sour-gas recovery, PI plays an essential role in developing the emirate’s skills base. By aiming to attract the best and brightest from around the world as faculty, it will facilitate the transfer of knowledge to its students and thus the Abu Dhabi hydrocarbons industry as a whole. As well as enhancing teaching, this will help develop innovation. “We need more talented people,” Marc Durandeau, the institute’s senior vice-president for R&D, told OBG. “Research is made by people, and we need talented faculty.”
PI students are encouraged to work in the energy sector after graduating, as their education is funded by ADNOC. As of autumn of 2014, PI had 1968 students, 1626 undergraduates and 342 postgraduates, meaning that the body of alumni will grow rapidly beyond the current 1240. The biggest department was mechanical engineering, with 324 students, 80 of whom are female. The student body has also been growing at a rate of 20% a year, according to Durandeau, who expects the expansion to continue.
While ADNOC is the main backer of PI, several of the supermajors active in Abu Dhabi provide funding and technical support, including BP, the Japan Oil Development Company, Total and Shell. As well as offering funds for some faculty salaries, companies give support to specific laboratory work and facility development, and provide visiting lecturers. “I agree that there is a challenge in balancing bringing expertise, technology, and innovation and the need for human capital and resources, the need to develop local talent development, to build local R&D capacity, to transfer knowledge to our partners,” Abdulkarim Al Mazmi, president and general manager for BP UAE, told OBG. “This could be done through successful partnership models such as BP’s in Iraq, Egypt, Russia and in other countries, where we transfer knowledge and share best practices with resource holders to unlock new sources or uncover more hydrocarbons from mature fields.”
PI actively engages a range of international universities as partners. Due to the nature of its specialisation, it has particularly close ties with institutions in the US, the world’s largest producer, consumer and exporter of oil, including MIT, Stanford, Rice University (based in Houston, Texas) and the Colorado School of Mines (CSM). In the UK, partnerships have been formed with the University of Manchester and Imperial College London. The relationship with CSM is particularly strong and dates back to 2000, when CSM authored the original proposal to support ADNOC’s project to create a university focusing on the hydrocarbons sector. CSM was given a grant by ADNOC and in 2001 launched a programme developing undergraduate degree courses in the five subject areas PI currently covers. PI’s curricula and academic standards are modelled on those of CSM, which also worked with ADNOC on establishing PI’s campus, recruiting the initial faculty members and choosing its first set of students. The relationship has now evolved to include support for PI’s research into upstream activities and the development of its engineering pedagogy.
The university is expanding physically as well, and the campus will cover 8 sq km by mid-2015 with the opening of the new PI Research Centre (PIRC). This “multidisciplinary, collaborative research and development facility” includes a high-voltage electrical laboratory, workrooms equipped with overhead gantry cranes, hydrogen sulphide suites, facilities for storage and distribution of chemicals, and flexible open-plan laboratories and offices.
The PIRC will support the development of teaching and research, with an emphasis on EOR research. EOR will be central to the development of the oil sector in the future, as ADNOC aims to boost recovery rates from its oilfields to 70%, to raise and maintain production in coming decades. PI will research not only CO 2 cap- ture and injection EOR – the form that is developing most prominently in Abu Dhabi – but other forms as well, including chemical injection. These methods, in which polymers or surfactants are injected along with water to improve recovery, presents a possible opportunity for the domestic petrochemicals industry. Abdul Munim Saif Al Kindy, deputy chairman of the Petroleum Institute, told OBG, “The focus of R&D activity has to be on geology and the property of reservoir fluids, essentially, developing EOR techniques specific for Abu Dhabi such as pressure support schemes, CO 2 , water and nitrogen injections. This is something PI is already working on and will develop programmes around sour gas and polymers.”
PI will also be involved in the development of sour gas resources in the emirate – another segment in which the industry is undertaking ground-breaking and technically challenging projects in order to boost output. In addition, the institute is planning to develop experimental facilities that will work on areas including safety (extracting volatile sulphur- and CO 2 -rich gas being dangerous) and methods of processing the resulting sulphur for the market. Durandeau expects that PI will open a facility working on hydrogen sulphide within three to four years, possibly with an international partner, which would provide foreign research institutions and investors the opportunity to become involved at the forefront of sour gas research in the emirate. The institute wants to move on from basic research to develop applied research. It is first and foremost an institution grounded in practicality – a university designed to support the hydrocarbons sector in Abu Dhabi, rather than one dedicated to theory.
Currently, PI sends a handful of its most talented graduates abroad to study for doctorate programmes, funded by ADNOC. While these partnerships are fruitful and are likely to continue, the PI is now developing its own PhD offerings in order to strengthen its research wing and boost talent development in-country. The institute is launching a PhD course in engineering, and by the end of 2015 it expects to be running at least one more. The programmes are accredited by the Ministry of Education and ABET, a US-based accreditation organisation. The school made the decision to strengthen postgraduate education in a climate in which the segment is increasingly the focus of global attention.
The course started with visiting lecturers coming to the PI to help the university develop its curriculum, and by the end of 2015 the institute aims to have its first PhD students – one or two at first, and then more as the university’s reputation for advanced education in the sector grows. Durandeau hopes that operating companies in Abu Dhabi will send mid-ranking staff to the PI on secondment to be upgraded to the PhD level, with the institute benefitting from an intake of talented and ambitious students with experience in the industry, and the companies from the development of highly trained workers.
As the rapid growth of its student body indicates, PI is meeting demand for technical education appropriate for careers in the hydrocarbons industry. By equipping young Emiratis with the skills needed by the oil and gas sector, it can play a central role in increasing Emiratisation in the main driver of Abu Dhabi’s economic development. Investment in research should also support expansion of non-conventional projects.
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