Academia and Oil&Gas

 By Peter Ward

Peter Ward looks at how universities around the world work with the oil and gas industry and independently to build the technology the industry will use in the future and which universities do the most research in this field…

The oil and gas industry has partnered together with academia for decades, in a mutually beneficial alliance. So how are universities around the world helping to shape the future of energy?

Universities contribute vital research to the oil and gas industry, finding new ways to boost efficiency and extract oil and gas from the earth in an environmentally-conscious manner. And academic researchers benefit from a number of advantages over their private sector counterparts.

“Private companies and consultancies are very good at short-term projects and harnessing expertise to meet prescribed deliverables. But of course they are driven by profit and thus lack the benefit of time to test out new ideas, to go down roads that may be dead ends,” says Jonathan Redfern, Professor of Petroleum Geoscience at the University of Manchester in the U.K. “Academics have the advantage of access to huge resources, both facilities and in particular the best human resources and an environment where ideas flow freely and new concepts are positively encouraged. And we have more time, a hugely valuable asset to achieve results.”

Universities like Manchester use their access to leading experts, analytical facilities and superior computing power and software to tackle fundamental problems in the oil and gas sector. Oil companies that are at the forefront of funding the research gain access to it first, and can capitalize and profit accordingly.

As oil prices have dwindled over the past year, academic research has been affected. An article by International Business Times cited the example of Louisiana State University, which was preparing to study the Tuscaloosa Marina Shale, a large rock formation that holds billions of barrels of crude. Initially oil and gas companies were eager to work with the university. “That interest is just gone,” said David Dismukes, executive director of LSU’s Center for Energy Studies in Baton Rouge told IBT. “The outlook over the next 12 to 24 months for getting new projects in the private sector are slim to none.”

Redfern concedes that there is currently less money in the industry, and this has led to companies downsizing their budgets, leaving research projects, or not being open to new proposals. But he argues that the need for research is greater than ever.

“I think the current oil price has made research ever more important. Universities offer a huge resource that is a differentiator, those companies that realize this and are engaged can use the results to deliver value and give them an advantage over other companies that may be shortsighted and only have short-term targets to cut costs, and lack a medium-long term vision,” explains Redfern. “There are companies that have seen the value of maintaining research, that are engaged, and have actually increase engagement. They see it as a valuable resource, and I think they are the ones that will gain a huge advantage.”

Possibly the most valuable resource university research can offer oil and gas companies is time. PhD candidates can spend years on topics and issues that private research companies and consultants would only be able to give weeks or months to. Redfern runs the North Africa Research Group (NARG), which is funded by a consortium of international oil companies and includes research collaborators from universities all over Europe. NARG is currently working on a project off the shores of Morocco, where it has spent two years undertaking in-depth research of the geology of the region, amassing a huge amount of data from extensive fieldwork, and found that original studies on the area were incorrect.


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Universities don’t just offer the oil and gas industry research. Oil and gas companies also partner with academic programs through integrated masters programs, and many academics hold seminars and courses for companies. Universities also incubate and spin out companies that provide crucial services to the oil and gas sector.

One example is Silicon MicroGravity (SMG), a University of Cambridge spin-out that has developed sensor technology used to enhance oil recovery. The company received funding of $3 million in February this year. Dr. Ashwin Seshia, co-founder of Silicon Microgravity, said: “The SMG devices advance the frontiers of gravity sensor technology, building upon several years of University research and innovation.”

Partnerships with universities offer oil and gas companies long-term value that is almost immeasurable. The smartest companies in the business will always keep close ties with academia, and be first in line to benefit from some of the extraordinary studies underway.

about the author
Peter Ward
Business and technology reporter based in New York. MA in Business Journalism at Columbia University Journalism School 2013. Five years experience reporting in the U.S., the U.K., and the Middle East.