In the deepest reaches of the sea lie vast oil and gas reserves that dwarf anything that has ever been discovered on land. And right in the back yard of one of the world’s foremost energy cities, the University of Houston (UH) is working with some of the other leading subsea universities on a global program designed to help bring that nether world, and the rich resources that lie within, a little closer.
Rigzone sat down with Dr. Matthew Franchek, the founder of the university’s subsea program and the director of the International Subsea Engineering Research Institute, to learn about its global efforts working with some of the other premier subsea universities.
More is being learned about the subsea environment all the time, but there is still much to be learned, Franchek said. He noted that here are many challenges to overcome, such as temperature extremes, the corrosive effects of salt water, and pressures as high as 15,000 pounds per square inch, at depths where oil changes its characteristics and needs to be pumped up to the surface by electrical motors connected to pumps. Umbilical cords two miles long or more, carrying information and electrical power along an unbroken path, and a plethora of one-off parts specially made for this extreme environment … the cost of subsea exploration is daunting, even for oil and gas majors, and a parts or systems failure can easily send costs spiraling out of control. Yet, he noted that the price of leaving the resources below the bottom of the sea is even greater.
Rigzone: How did the structure of the Global Subsea University Alliance start? And what is the structure of the program?
Franchek: We know this is an international business, and we really wanted to make it easier for students to get their subsea education. Also, this [subsea] is a really demanding thing to study. So, we helped create and lead this partnership. We are working with Norway’s Bergen University College, Curtin University in Australia, the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, National University of Singapore and Federal University of Rio de Janeiro.
Each one [of the participating universities] has a signature area – a niche – that they excel in. The University of Aberdeen is the global leader in pipeline design. At UH, we specialize in intelligent subsea systems and computational subsea engineering, although we have broader strengths, such as the work in multiphase flow, because of where we exist. We have the world’s leading companies right here.
We had to standardize the curriculum across the six participating universities. We have to have some commonality. For any UH student, we have pre-defined classes from the other universities that we’ll accept. If one of our students wants to take one of the classes at another university, and it’s not pre-approved, send us the syllabus and we’ll get it done.
Rigzone: And it works the same way for the other participating universities?
Yes, it’s the same for the students from the other universities in the program. So, when a student comes in from another university, they are going to have the same curriculum, because we all have the same subsea philosophy. But if we accept classes back and forth, we have to decide what a subsea engineer is. We have to make sure that their subsea engineer is the same as our subsea engineer.
We recently had this global meeting with individual advisory boards, and then we came together and identified what those basic courses were. There are three classes that are core competency courses.
Rigzone: How do students at the other universities in the program take a class at UH?
Franchek: Our program is the first entirely online program available at UH. We had to get online, because we have some unique courses that others don’t have. We want to reach out to anyone with an internet and an interest in subsea. Also, we have students who have to go offshore for some time. So, now all the courses are recorded. Students can listen to them as often as they want – someone looked one of the classes up 14 times. Questions (from online students) are asked through the computer or the teacher’s assistance.
For UH students, we have two classrooms [where subsea is taught] – one accommodates 122 students, and the other accommodates 45 students. You want to talk about networking, well, come to the class. Four face-to-face lecture classes are offered each semester, and all four are full [for Fall 2014], and two of the online courses are full, and this is without the new students coming in. So, we’re going to have to be creative.
Rigzone: It sounds like the interest in subsea is building.
Franchek: Build-up in interest? It’s been a tsunami. One class on flow assurance started off with 14 or 15 people in 2011. It’s the required course. Each semester, it has grown. When it was offered last semester, there were 122 students in the class, not to mention the ones [taking the class] online.
Rigzone: Is there anything available for students who are not pursuing a master’s degree?
Franchek: There is a certificate program for students who don’t want or need the full master’s program. They might want a new skills set, but they don’t need a degree. So, we maintain a certificate program with three courses. Complete that and you get a certificate in subsea engineering. There are also three advanced courses in subsea engineering. The courses for the certificate program are the same as the ones in the master’s program, except that there are six total courses with the certificate program, instead of 10.
Rigzone: Where do you want to go next with the program?
Franchek: When you’re the chair of the program, you don’t have a lot of time. I credit the dean and the chancellor, who referred to this as a rock to be moved. She wanted it run like a business. Students pay, so they are the customers. We need to make sure they are employable when they get out. We want them to leave having had a good experience, and to remember where they came from. I came in for five years, seven max. So, I’ve run the university’s subsea engineering program with a sense of urgency. It’s getting close to time to start something else, and also to find the next leader of the Global Subsea University Alliance.